A Subtlety

Artist : Kara Walker
Location : Brooklyn, New York
Year : 2014
Researcher : Jessica Fiala

A 2014 commission from Creative Time provided Walker with the opportunity to shift her process dramatically to create a large-scale public artwork to mark the closing of Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory.Following a rigorous research and development process, as well as internal debates over how to respond to the massive space (5 stories high and over a football field long), Kara Walker created her first sculpture, A Subtlety, fully 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.”

Walker’s subtlety stood 35 feet high, extended 75 feet long, and was constructed from a polystyrene core coated with 80,000 pounds of sugar. A Subtlety combined the figure of a sphinx with a caricatured face, reminiscent of a Mammy archetype with tied kerchief. The powerful figure dominated the space but was also sexualized by exposed breasts and vulva. One hand was held in a figa gesture—a symbol that can either convey good luck or serve as a crude gesture of insult. A Subtlety was joined by 15 attendants based on curio objects of young servant boys hauling baskets or bananas. Standing almost 5 feet tall and crafted in resin and candy, these attendants were designed to melt during the exhibition, with more stable basket-bearers containing remnants of earlier smashed candy compatriots.

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As with Walker’s previous works, the piece inspired controversy. Expected concerns over whitewashing slavery and a lack of context were here coupled with local opposition to the redevelopment itself and questions about the for-profit initiatives of nonprofit board members. The largest debates, however, arose as a result of the actions of visitors using the exhibit into a stage for selfies, and turning the sexually explicit aspects of A Subtlety into the butt of internet jokes. The behavior provoked “We Are Here,” a group/action that offered timelines, a space to note comments, and stickers with the phrase as a reminder of the presence of descendants of slaves as well an encouragement to get more people of color to attend the installation.

The redevelopment is now underway, but A Subtlety remains in memory as both an homage to the neighborhood’s past as well as a sugary web connecting the site to histories of slavery as well as tensions, violence, and privilege that linger today.

A Subtlety remains in memory as both an homage to the neighborhood’s past as well as a sugary web connecting the site to histories of slavery as well as tensions, violence, and privilege that linger today.

The artist was commissioned by Creative Time to create a temporary installation at the Domino Sugar Factory in advance of the building's demolition. The artist was given free reign to create a public artwork in the space.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency