The Subtlety of Kara Walker’s Race and Gender Art is Lost on Some
Earlier this month, artist Kara Walker unveiled her sphinx-like statue “A Subtlety” in Brooklyn. With its oversized vulva made of sugar, it’s not surprising that the statute would be controversial, but it is saddening to see why it’s causing controversy.
It’s not that it is simply a vulva: it’s whose it is (or isn’t) and who created it. Kara Walker has already established herself as a controversial artist, whose art such as previous exhibits titled “Why I Like White Boys, an Illustrated Novel by Kara E. Walker Negress” (1999) or “The High and Soft Laughter of the Nigger Wenches At Night” (1995) reflect her unapologetic point of view on the African-American contributions that created this United States.
The point in her latest exhibition, “A Subtlety” (which closed on July 6th) is… well, it is up to the observer as to what it means. A large sphinx-like creature with an exaggerated Aunt Jemima figurine head and a pronounced vulva — if you dare to look at her rear — is resplendent, beautifully crafted, and also to some, vulgar. The hardest thing about “A Subtlety” is how differently we see this figure, depending on our individual perspectives. As part of the We Are Here campaign organized by Sisters Art Salon (SAS), a collective of women of colour and faculty from The New School, 500 supporters signed up to join the throngs of attendees on a hot Sunday afternoon in front of the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district - once a predominately Puerto Rican neighbourhood and now a highly gentrified borough of the city and often the punchline of jokes because of its hipster population. That’s one of the reasons why the organization wanted to volunteer its services to provide what Walker purposefully didn’t at the exhibit - some historical perspective as to what the figures mean.
One of the organizers from Sisters Art Salon walked down the line of waiting visitors - the longest I’ve ever seen to get into an exhibition - and talked to the black men and women in line, explaining the organization and offering them “We Are Here” stickers to attach onto their clothes and explaining the reason why they were there. In addition, the organization provided a space outside of the exit where people could share their thoughts on the exhibit. Because Walker didn’t offer a lot of written explanation about her reasoning behind "A Subtlety” and due to the numerous Instagram photos of previous exhibition visitors making obscene gestures in front of the pronounced genitalia of the 35 by 75-foot sugar statue, it appeared that the general public—more specifically the white general public—didn’t get the seriousness and the emotionality of the exhibit.
The examination of the Caribbean sugar trade—the fact that African slaves were transported to the Islands to work as labourers in which some lost their lives to produce—was completely lost. So SAS decided to offer volunteers who were available to explain the nuances of Walker’s exhibit. Arriving at the Domino Sugar Factory, I felt unprepared, as I hadn’t seen it yet, and what I saw moved me. After I got my sticker, a volunteer went down the line to collect the release forms that she had distributed earlier. A young “hipster” couple asked why there were so many “people of color with stickers” there that day. Let’s just say the volunteer didn’t handle it well, labelling all the “people of color” as ‘activists’ in this cynical tone as though we were protesting something and preparing to raise a ruckus. I was biting my lip to add in my two cents, but I didn’t.
“A Subtlety” is artist Kara Walker’s first foray into sculpture, and while photographs of the Sphinx have been widely featured online, there is nothing like seeing it in person. What disturbed me more were the pint-sized male figures, strategically placed around the warehouse. The smell of the warehouse, sickly sweet and with the combination of the heat and vintage sugar, what should have reminded visitors of a delicious delicacy, ended up being an odour that clogged your pores and suffocated your senses. I felt uncomfortable and ill at ease, and seeing the young black boys, made out of resin and the darkest molasses positioned within the warehouse, some toppled over from the heat and the humidity and oozing amber and crimson molasses, which intermingled with the dirty, sticky floor, resembled blood - not the thin, light stuff that might ooze from a minor scrape, but deep, thick blood from a large vein.