Artist Spotlight: Kara Walker's 'A Subtlety' (2014)

When American installation artist Kara Walker found out that the Domino Sugar Refining Plant was being demolished after 131 years, she installed a critical and thought-provoking sugar sculpture.

A Subtlety aka The Marvellous Sugar Baby is “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.” The sugar sphinx takes the form of a racist mammy stereotype, with 13 'attendants' based in the representation of problematic blackamoor statues surrounding her.

A Subtlety isn't so much about the specific factory as a spotlight on the history of the sugar trade in America, and its reliance on slave labour. A potential viewing of this work would be as a temple-like memorial to enslaved ancestors, finally making the lives of the enslaved visible.

But the meaning of A Subtlety was as much in the form of physical sculpture, as it was the reactions of the audience to her. The visitors who gathered at the Sugar Factory were recorded as reacting in accordance with their knowledge and gravitas of slavery in the USA. The engagement of non- African American audiences are recorded to have largely greeted Sugar Baby on a purely aesthetic level. Taking pictures posing with her, mimicking pinching the Sugar Baby's nipples in what Alice Procter suggests is "at best an ignorant, and at worst an aggressive, re-enactment of the violation of enslaved women, and of the continuing fetishising and sexualising of women of color."

A Subtlety is a powerful piece of public art that encourages critical thinking about the relationship between race and capital, and how we react when we are confronted with invisible voices made visible.

There are some really great resources discussing A Subtlety and more in detail by Jamilah King that you can read here if you're keen to learn more.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety (2014), Sugar, polystyrene, plastic, molasses, 10m high x 22m // Image courtesy of the artist and Hyperallergic