Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby…” has become one of the most talked-about art exhibits in New York City this spring. The show’s lengthy full title, “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,” is a look at the Caribbean slave trade and sugar boom, with a white sphinx made of sugar housed inside the abandoned Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at its centerpiece.
In the middle of this dark, cavernous soon-to-be-demolished factory sits the looming figure, a “subtlety” (which is how sugar sculptures were described in medieval times) that features an African woman, stern face with large breasts, genitals exposed and her hair tied in a kerchief. The piece highlights the hardships slaves faced as sugar became a dominant trade in the western world. The Caribbean slave trade helped fuel the industrial boom of the 1700s and 1800s and thrived via the sugar and rum markets.
“A Subtlety…” has drawn raves from everyone from the New York Times to NPR, and she stressed that it’s not just about race — but a document and expression of the historical suffering caused in the creation of the contemporary western world. The refining process, fundamentally a system in which brown sugar was turned into white serves as a metaphorical parallel to what happened to blacks. There are also allusions to the physically damaging labor that slaves endured to facilitate that process. Oftentimes, the sugar cane was fed into machines by hand and slaves lost limbs. Scattered around the old factory are other sculptures of slave boys, made of brown sugar, carrying bananas and baskets of cracked sugar that melt and glisten from exposure to the varying temperatures.
Walker’s “A Subtlety…” is not very subtle, but it is very effective and stirring. It’s a beautifully staged look at an ugly part of our collective histories.