Sweet Desires: Kara Walker, Sugar and Space

by Esther Vincent

 

In 2014 a monumental sugar sculpture, created by prolific American artist Kara Walker, was unveiled in Brooklyn’s abandoned Domino Sugar Refinery. The artist utilised architectural space, text, and the weighty historical significance of the material itself, to convey a critical understanding of our contemporary relationship to slavery and the foundations of imperialism in the United States. The work weaves together two all-too-common racial stereotypes embedded in America’s history – the ‘care-taker of the domestic needs of white families’ (the kerchief-wearing head of the sculpture) and the sexualised object (made explicit by the body). These contrastive images are inscribed upon ancient form of the sphinx, becoming an explicit commentary on the mythologizing of black female bodies. The piece also included fifteen other ‘attendant’ sculptures.

 

The central sculpture was framed by the title:

              At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:

A Subtlety

or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet  tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the                                     demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant

The title works in two ways simultaneously, both mocking and legitimising the strands of historical grounding the work portrays. The grandiose language parodies Walker’s inspiration for the sculpture’s genesis in sugar – the ‘sugar subtleties’ served at medieval banquets, crafted as a tool for power in the era when sugar was admired as a luxury commodity. Secondly, although the physical scale of the sculpture itself communicates America’s expansive history of discrimination, the title serves as a space for language where the narrative can be re-written by Walker in an equally explicit way. The sculptural elements cast a wide net with ‘assorted meanings on slavery and imperialism’, but it is through the text that Walker crafts the piece’s specificity, ensuring we take a moment to consider the ‘unpaid and overworked Artisans’ haunting the factory space. With the single word, ‘Artisans’, a new historical lens is mapped out for the factory workers where erasure existed before.

 

The location of the Domino sugar factory is crucial, particularly if we understand the intention of the piece as to re-historicise the building itself and its long-established connection with sugar consumption and the slave-trade. Once an industry giant, the factory was responsible for refining over half of the sugar supply for the United States by 1870. In 2014, however, we see the factory workers and patrons undertaking a large amount of responsibility for Walker’s project; her voice as an artist becoming a definitive moment in the building’s history right before it’s demolition, as a way to reframe narratives about the industry as a whole.

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The large-scale space of the factory itself also serves the piece. It’s temple-like proportion adds an almost parodic atmosphere of the reverential, in a space originally used to facilitate consumption. Walker’s so-called ‘subtlety’ is not so subtle, utilising a gigantic space and its associated historical narratives to comment on the massive physical impact of ‘a slave trade that traded sugar for bodies and bodies for sugar.’

 

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