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  • On the Whiteness of Kara Walker's Marvelous Sugar Baby
  • Glenda R. Carpio (bio)

kara walker's A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014) was nothing if not spectacular. Housed in a storage shed "five stories high and more than a football field long," it featured a great white sphinx measuring "75 feet from paws to rump," rising to the rafters of the building.1 It was the "largest single piece of public art ever erected in New York City."2 Almost lost in all that grandeur, fifteen human-sized statues of brown children stood at intervals across the vast space. Yet the decay and eventual destruction of nearly all the sculptures was built into their design. The sphinx's core was comprised of enormous blocks of foam that, after the work was dismantled, were cut up, cleaned, and taken away for recycling by their manufacturer, the novelistic-sounding Insulation Corporation of America. The outer surface of the installation (its "skin") was coated in about forty tons of sugar, which after months of exposure to a leaking roof and the breath of thousands of visitors could not be recycled or eaten.3 (It was carried off to the dump by Action Carting.) The child sculptures were all in different stages of deterioration by the show's final weeks. Twelve were cast in resin but coated in molasses and [End Page 551] sugar, which partly melted away over the course of the show. The other three were cast in sugar and had collapsed and mostly melted away by the close of the exhibition; their demise was also part of the plan. The demolition of the space itself—the Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—was the occasion for the work; it began soon after the installation was dismantled.

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Figure 1.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014), polystyrene foam, sugar, approx. 426 x 312 x 906 in. (1,082 x 792.5 x 2,301.2 cm). Artwork © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

The installation's mixture of grandeur and ephemerality was closely tied to the oppositions it made manifest. Drawing on stereotype and caricature, Walker gave the sphinx a Mammy head kerchief and exaggerated the nose and lips. Yet she also made her glowingly, blindingly white. As a Mammy figure, the sphinx indexed Black femininity defined by servility and asexual maternal comfort. Yet Walker also endowed her with buxom breasts, sensual curves, a positively giant rear end, and a ten-foot vulva. And while she rested on her paws, assuming a posture of docility, the sphinx's chin and jaw jutted straight out above her viewers; in her left paw, the thumb was tucked [End Page 552] between her index and middle fingers in the figa sign, an obscene gesture that is also a symbol of fertility. Subtle she was not.

In this series of contradictions, several realities crystalized. Invoking the grand, mythical power of racialized sexual stereotype through the sphinx's scale and figurative details, Walker made explicit the forms of desire and pleasure that the stereotype surreptitiously, but palpably, affords. At the same time, she materialized the ostentatious architecture of racial arrogance, using not only scale but also color (the sphinx's whiteness) while exposing the flimsiness of its core (Styrofoam blocks). As she has done throughout her career, Walker deployed aesthetic form to expose the myths that shore up ideology and to draw out otherwise obscured relations of power. The sphinx put on grand display the connection between the leisure and pleasure taken at the expense of the labor of others (indexed through the history and consumption of sugar) and the sexual degradation and objectification of enslaved people, especially women, whose labor have produced and maintained the wealth of empires. The site specificity of the installation was key in this process of crystallization.

The Domino Sugar Refinery, as Walker succinctly put it, was, like others in the history of sugar, "a factory for the production of death and destruction."4 When Creative Time commissioned her to create a public work to mark the demolition of the refinery, she faced a great challenge...


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