A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby

Monday, June 02, 2014

On a perfect New York summer day, we stepped out of the sunshine and into the dusky confines of the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg to delve into a dark period of history captured in artist Kara Walker's beautiful yet unsettling art. Within this soon-to-be-demolished industrial relic's walls, still caked with molasses from over a century of sugar refining, a 35-foot tall sphinx hewn out of four tonnes of sugar and Walker's genius holds court. The messages conveyed by the imagery were manifold. 

The figure of the sphinx embodying humankind's capacity for and struggle with slavery, which dates back to our ancient civilizations. 

The distinctive kerchief on the archetypical mammy head recalling America's history of slavery.

The highly sexualized contours of the sculpture reminding us of prejudices that remain.

The white sugar coating prompting us to face how the affluent world's cravings have caused and still perpetuate the suffering of so many.

Walker's installation is called A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby—after the elaborate sugar sculptures called "subtleties" served on affluent dinner tables during medieval times. Aside from the gargantuan white sugar sphinx, the warehouse was studded with sculptures of cherubic boys crafted out of molasses and resin. Modeled after archaic tchotchkes the artist discovered in her research, at first glance these sculptures seemed concocted in the medieval spirit, with the intent to delight. But each piece is a meditation on the 19th century slave trade and those it visited its horrors upon, all in service of the wealthier world's insatiable appetite. It's a message that resonates in today's relentlessly avaricious world which, in spite of all its technological advancements, has yet to free all of humanity from slavery's persistent hold.

A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby is on view through July 6, 2014 at the Domino Sugar Factory, South 1st Street at Kent Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. For more information, click here.

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