My professor partner-in-crime, Rylan Steele, makes sure we all see great art while we’re here, and man, am I glad. I had seen articles about the Kara E. Walker installation pop up on Facebook, but I hadn’t thought much about whether I’d go while visiting NYC. After a semi-grueling (but marvelous!) day spent touring Brooklyn Heights with Sherill Tippins and a trip to the Brooklyn Museum, Rylan and I hopped in a cab, made it to the Domino Sugar Factory, and waited in line with hundreds of others to see the Walker installation titled A Subtlety.
In short, it was amazing and not at all subtle. While the sugar mammy sphinx and her sugar baby helpers were a sight, the place itself was something to behold. The smell of sugar hits you instantly when you walk in—both sweet and sour. The walls of the space are muddied with molasses stains, and piles of dark brown sugar rest in every crevice. Beautiful but dirty. (Perhaps that sums up the exhibit itself—beautiful and dirty, sweet and sour?). But these descriptions have been given again and again, and Evette Dionne’s and Kirsten West Savali’s articles speak particularly well to some of the emotions that Walker’s installation brings to the surface. There are scores of well-written reviews out there, and I’m not sure that I can add more in terms of interpretation, but I do want to talk about Walker’s work in a southern context.
Walker has southern roots, having lived in Atlanta during her adolescent years and then remaining there for college, and her work often showcases the iconic image of the mammy figure that she incorporated into her installation at the sugar factory. Now, while I know that this piece is specific to the history of Brooklyn and the destruction of the factory, I also read that part of Walker’s inspiration in continually re-creating these stereotypical black icons came after seeing a giant mammy-shaped restaurant outside of Natchez, MS. And this is what I want to think about: why that restaurant remains—not in any ironic form—and then why an installation like Walker’s would probably not see a 45 minute line out the door in the Southeast. Certainly, across the mill towns of the South, there are historical spaces doomed to demolition and gentrification where Walker (or other artists) might create a similar installation. But I’m not sure that Southerners are ready to see this image outside of an offensively kitschy roadside attraction— this time so gigantic, so horrifically iconic (that the mammy stands in as our American “sphinx”). And I’m not sure we’re ready to deal with the emotions we confront when we see it. Because those are emotions about slavery, labor, oppression, and exploitation of people’s bodies and minds—specifically of African Americans and specifically of African American women.
But maybe I’m wrong: maybe lines would form, maybe the wait would be hours, just to be a part of something controversial. When I saw people snapping selfies with Walker’s sphinx looming in the background, it made me feel uncomfortable—as if I was part of a trend, some art installation fad—not a part of an intellectual artistic endeavor. This is not in any way a critique of Walker’s installation, but more a critique of the audience–of thinking about what it means to stand beneath an artistic rendering of American history with an audience that may not be fully aware of its meaning. For instance, many of my college students in Georgia get the Civil War and Civil Rights movement confused, and so many of us (Southerners or not) still consider Gone With the Wind to be an iconic American film, maybe even a substitution for actual history, when we need to be thinking about those iconic characters and settings in a critical way.
This is what I think Walker’s installation does…but I also wondered if her statement wasn’t lost a little. Like the rest of the spectators, I stood there gawking, almost as if the sugar mammy sphinx was a consumable roadside attraction in the middle of nowhere Mississippi.