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Kara Walker’s A Subtlety – or The Marvelous Sugar Baby

I’d seen so many pictures of Kara Walker’s first ever public large-scale installation at the soon-to-be-destroyed old Domino Sugar Factory in South Williamsburg that I thought I’d knew what to expect. Leaving it to the last day of an exhibition is not always the wisest decision, but sometimes it can’t be helped. And that is how I found myself in one of those typical must-see-event-in-NYC-is-closing lines, 10 blocks long.

To the organizers Creative Time’s credit, it moved as swiftly along as lines go, taking about just over an hour to reach the entrance. As is the case in NYC, standing in lines can sometimes – not always, but many times – be a great exercise in humanity, as the man behind me bought me a water and the woman in front shared her sunscreen. 

Walking into the Sugar Factory, I was hit by the sheer size of A Subtlety – or the installation’s other name, 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. She lay sphinx-like in the far end of the space, with a skylight shining onto her face. The smell quickly came over me – the unexpected pungency of too much sugar – and it made me even more startled by the space and what was inside.

There is so much that can be read and discussed and debated, and has been in the 3 months the installation has been up, about issues of race, and the legacy of slavery, and sugar consumption, and taste. The history of the Domino Sugar refinery, which was built in 1856, gave the US more than half of its sugar supply by 1870. That’s a history that is far too deep and intricate to go into in one visit, but Walker’s piece moved me in the sense that I felt empathy with the spirits, if you will, of those who toiled within the factory over the years.

It’s strange to say, but it felt like She was a living, breathing entity, in that space, as people milled about, taking pictures and, yes, selfies, next to her giant off-white frame (read here for thoughts about this weird modern-day phenomenon). I asked about the lines on her neck and back that were there, and a women working with Creative Time said they had formed because of the warmth of the room and the sunlight, making it look like the Sugar Baby was sweating, and so still ‘labouring’, if you will. It moved me to think of the human history of production within those walls.

That acrid smell of something I’ve only ever thought of as sweet and delightful was a strange feeling too. I appreciate Walker’s installation because it allowed me to go into a building I’ve only ever passed on runs in Brooklyn. The rest of the room is filled with small servant boy figures, made of molasses and resin, which are disturbing in the way they have been weighed down – some very literally broken – because of the substance.

Or at least they were. The exhibition is being demolished this coming week. The factory, soon after.




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For a video on Kara Walker’s Domino installation, click here


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