Look and Listen #8: Looking back at Kara Walker’s Subtlety via Art21

Subtlety was a marvelous sculpture made by Kara Walker for the Domino Sugar Factory, a place dripping with the residue of productivity, a productivity built on the backs of African slaves. The fusion of the mysterious sphinx, guardian of secrets connecting the human with the divine, with the mammy, a symbol white America designed to promulgate the lie that black women were happy and fulfilled in slavery, speaks eloquently and pointedly of the situation slavery created. Alluring, forbidden and subjugated, she retains a power that awes the senses. The main sculpture is coated with sugar, while several smaller ones are made entirely of sugar. America has long sugar-coated the fate of slaves. A subtlety, a piece made to please the palate of royalty and colonial whiteness, now challenges all of us to own the past.

“Episode #204: This episode provides an in-depth look at the creation of Kara Walker’s monumental public project, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” (2014), at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, NY. Seated in her Manhattan studio, Walker explains how the molasses-covered space, along with her extensive research into the history of sugar, inspired her to create a colossal sugar-coated sphinx, as well as a series of life-sized, sugar and resin boy figurines. A team of artists and fabricators are shown constructing and coating the sphinx, which, as Walker says, gains its power by “upsetting expectations, one after the other.”

Commissioned by Creative Time, “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” is the first large-scale public project by Walker who is best known for her cut paper silhouette installations, drawings, and watercolors. “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” was on view until July 6, 2014. Thereafter, the factory is scheduled to be demolished to make way for condominiums. Kara Walker explores the raw intersection of race, gender, and sexuality in her work, crafting vivid psychological narratives from a contemporary perspective on historical conditions.

Over the past two decades, Walker has unleashed the traditionally Victorian medium of the silhouette onto the walls of the gallery, creating immersive installations that envelop the viewer. Walker’s multi-media work—which includes drawing, watercolor, video, and sculpture—often reconsider grotesque caricatures, probing their persistence in popular culture and reclaiming their subjugating power to alternative ends. Learn more about the artist at: http://www.art21.org/artists/kara-walker

CREDITS: Producer: Ian Forster. Consulting Producer: Wesley Miller & Nick Ravich. Interviewer: Ian Forster. Camera: Ian Forster, Rafael Salazar & Ava Wiland. Sound: Nicole J. Caruth, Wesley Miller & Ava Wiland. Editor: Morgan Riles. Music: Pinch Music. Artwork Courtesy: Kara Walker & Creative Time. Special Thanks: Sikkema Jenkins & Co. Theme Music: Peter Foley. “Exclusive” is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; 21c Museum Hotel, and by individual contributors.”



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