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  • Sugar Babies:Confections of American Childhood in Vik Muniz's Sugar Children and Kara Walker's Marvelous Sugar Baby
  • Tashima Thomas (bio)

"What did they live on?" said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking. "They lived on treacle," said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two. "They couldn't have done that, you know," Alice gently remarked. "They'd have been ill." "So they were," said the Dormouse; "very ill."

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at times contemplates the existential dilemma of subsisting exclusively on a treacle diet. The term "treacle" is a British idiom that refers to the dark brown syrupy molasses obtained from raw sugar during the refinement process.1 Moreover, Carroll suggests an etiological exposure assessment of an exclusively treacle diet endangering one's wellness and resulting in great illness. Carroll uses Alice's great interest in eating and drinking (read: "Drink me." "Eat me."), as the operative expression of his fascination with saccharine and other sugared variants that sweeten the narrative leading to adventures into the absurd. Kara Walker's black-and-white cutout silhouettes are historical treatments of the absurd and the obstinately ridiculous yet terrifying predicaments of U.S. slavery and the plantation agroindustrial complex. Walker's A Subtlety is a kind of "Adventures in Sugarland"—an exploration of treacled bodies, labor practices, and the apotheosis [End Page 121] of mother sugar as a raced, gendered, sphinxed goddess. While Vik Muniz's Portraits of the Sugar Children share a material and temporal affinity with Walker's work, Muniz emphasizes the inevitable void of the children's sugar futures. Together, these two artists' work in sugar offers a comparative analysis that goes beyond the material and temporal and ultimately addresses the contentious and violent histories of sugar and the vulnerability of children's bodies.

Walker's blockbuster installation at the Domino Sugar Factory, A Subtlety or The Marvelous Sugar Baby, drew over 130,000 visitors from all over the world and was available for public viewing on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for only a few weeks in the spring of 2014. The installation featured thirteen sculptures of young black boys made of resin and coated in molasses. Through time and heat, the sugary black bodies partially dissolved into sticky liquefied footpaths, leaving the sculptures in various states of dismemberment and disappearance. The official title for Walker's piece is the following:

At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Waker has confected:

A Subtlety

or the Marvelous Sugar Baby 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

Walker's predilection for creating superfluous, romanticized titles is typical of her approach. She invokes a nineteenth-century aesthetic visually and literarily. For example, her 1997 installation of black-and-white silhouettes titled The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven shares the embellished title inspired by Harriett Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Walker's nineteenth-century visual aesthetic is further explored within the industrial space of the refining plant.

The Domino Sugar Factory was built in 1927 on the East River in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. It was originally a storage facility that processed and whitened tons of sugar. The soon-to-be demolished factory had been shuttered for over a decade when it hosted its final installment of sugar profundity courtesy of Creative Time and Kara Walker. In their curatorial remarks, Creative Time emphasizes the racial and sexual connotations of the seventy-five-foot sugar sphinx whose kerchief-covered mammy-styled head emphasizes the stereotype of the desexualized black female domestic laborer, while the prominent hips and buttocks with exposed vulva emphasize the stereotype of the overly sexualized bodies of black women. To this latter assumption, I would like to add that the domestic labor represented by the mammy stereotype is a double bind of labor. The work of historian Deborah Gray White [End Page 122] reminds us...


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pp. 121-141
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