Exploring sugar’s bitter colonial legacy
More than 100,000 people, according to the New York Times, stood in line last summer to view A Subtlety, Kara Walker’s monumental sugar sculpture, constructed in Brooklyn’s iconic Domino Sugar factory. It isn’t the attendance numbers, however, but the ongoing conversation about the work that indicates indicates it is one of the most important public artworks in recent memory.
As a set of sculptures, the installation—full titled 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—was anything but subtle. Its centerpiece was a 75-foot-long sculpture of a nude sphinx, built in the caricatured likeness of Aunt Jemima, and coated with some 80 tons of confectioners’ sugar. Attending sculptures, made from candy and rosins, depicted the child slaves of the sugar industry.
As a set of sculptures, A Subtlety speaks to the sugarcoating of the African-American experience, the image and role of black women in our culture, the rise and fall of corporate colonialism. As a public event, the work digs even deeper: Months after the piece was dismantled, commentators were still struggling with the notably unsubtle, #nofilter Instagram and Twitter posts of largely white audience members who responded, with virtually no reflection, to the sexualized sculpture.
“Human behavior is so mucky and violent and messed-up and inappropriate,” Walker told the LA Times. “And I think my work draws on that.” Some things simply can’t be sugarcoated.