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ON TUESDAY, ARTIST KARA WALKER spoke for 90 minutes about “A Subtlety,” the enormous sculpture she has installed in the old Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn. Commissioned by the public arts organization Creative Time to produce a work for the abandoned space, she was given complete creative freedom. In a conversation with Jad Abumrad, host and creator of Radiolab, Walker explained how she decided to erect a handkerchief-wearing, sugar-coated sphinx in the space and discussed the very public nature of her new work.

“A Subtlety,” opened on May 10 and is attracting impressive crowds (admission is free). Known for her cut-paper silhouettes, drawings and video installations, “A Subtlety” is Walker’s first large-scale public work. The medium is new, but the challenging subject matter is a natural extension of her practice, an exhaustive exploration of race, gender, power and subjugation, mostly in the ante-bellum South. Her work is both provocative and innovative and her latest creation follows suit.

kara walker by sari goodfriendThe installation space, literally thick with molasses that drips from the ceiling, along with a lingering cloud of race, economic and labor history, inspired the sculpture. A white sphinx figure with the features of a black woman, a handkerchief knotted on her head, her breasts exposed and bare rear end perched high, she is surrounded by little black boys carrying baskets, brown figures composed of molasses and resin. The presentation examines the history of the sugar trade, the sugar industry, its labor practices and lingering impact on the American narrative.

Walker (pictured above) explains that a subtlety is “a medieval term for a marzipan sculpture, a subtlety, ritualistic quality, consuming the power of the king with the magical medicinal power of sugar [sic].”

The work’s full title is lengthy and explanatory: “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.”

Abumrad mentions that in her New York Times review, art critic Roberta Smith called the installation “a pre-demolition [purification] ritual” for the space.

“I think that’s kind of accurate,” Walker says.

Abumrad describes “A Subtlety” as a critique of the sugar industry. “It’s an interesting thing to see what is a critique of the sugar industry, made out of sugar from the sugar industry. Was that ever a weird plank to walk?” he asks Walker.

In response, Walker, who received 80 tons of free sugar from Domino for the project (she used half the amount), says, “Everybody was really generous, but I don’t know that anybody was ever clear on what I was making.”

“It’s an interesting thing to see what is a critique of the sugar industry, made out of sugar from the sugar industry. Was that ever a weird plank to walk?” — Jad Abumrad

“Everybody was really generous, but I don’t know that anybody was ever clear on what I was making.” — Kara Walker

Throughout the conversation before an audience at the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue (captured in the video below), Walker is forthright and reserved, humorous, serious, and a little awkward at times. If you are familiar with her work, hearing her discuss it adds an eye-opening perspective.

THE CONVERSATION BEGAN with a fairly detailed consideration of “A Subtlety” with Walker sharing how her ideas developed and how she figured out how to build the sphinx, which involved a team of fabricators and installers. (Walker prefers to call her “The Sphinx,” rather than “The Mammy” figure, which has become shorthand for some in reference to the sculpture). The foundation of the sphinx is composed of foam blocks covered in a sugar and water solution that was combined in a cement mixer.

“A lot of my work dives into narratives that pre-exist me and then I try to mine them for what they are worth.” — Kara Walker

“A lot of my work dives into narratives that pre-exist me and then I try to mine them for what they are worth,” Walker says. She was online, “playing around” on her computer when she discovered the inspiration for the candy boys. She “found these small gift items that were really problematic in their representation: willing, happy African-looking boys carrying baskets, carrying objects, sort of seeming to be in a servile mode.”

Walker blew the images up using a 3D scanner and printer and cast them out of a candy solution. She calls the final products “big Jolly Ranchers” that weigh about 300 pounds.

Abumrad asks Walker standard questions about the installation, as well as more introspective ones, such as what is “The Sphinx” thinking? Did Walker conceive of her having a personality? He also wondered whether the candy boy statues that surround the sphinx “know” each other or are aware of each other’s existence. They have a relationship to one another, Walker says. A couple of the figures broke into “a million pieces” and the shattered remnants were scooped up and placed into the baskets of the remaining boys. They “may not know each other,” Walker says, “but they are aware of each other’s fate.” Then Abumrad asks, What is going to happen to her and the space and to the candy boys?

Walker says “the candy boys will disintegrate. I think the Brooklyn Mseum has taken on one of the resin boys. I haven’t had a lot of conversation about the dismantling of [the sphinx], but there will be some power washing and recycling of the foam blocks that undergird her.” She also says that her understanding is that the site will become another waterfront development, complete with condos and a park.



IN THE SECOND HALF OF THE PROGRAM, the two take a step back and review Walker’s personal backstory and overall practice. She grew up in Northern California where her father, a painter, was the head of the art department at the University of the Pacific. He took a similar role at Georgia State in Atlanta, moving back to his native state when she was 13, entering high school and adolescence. It was a challenging adjustment, dealing with being the new kid at school and the unfamiliar charms of the South. The artist says you could walk into the cineplex anytime of the day and see “Birth of a Nation” playing and the head of the local Klan lived at the far end of their block, Walker Street.

Recollections of these experiences would later figure prominently in her work and garner derision from older black artists circa 1997. She was having “a tear of exhibitions,” had just won the MacArthur “genius” grant and was pregnant when her elders accused her of “falling into the hands of the white establishment. Selling black folks down the river. All of that was really hurtful,” Walker says.

“The beauty of the work draws you in before you realize what you are looking at. Seduction creates this. It is sort of the art part of this. How do you make people want to be in this space, because there is nothing about this story that is particularly easy.” — Kara Walker

Abumrad asks if she expects race will always factor in her future work. Is it race, she counters, or is it gender or is it history or is it power? Seduction is an important part of her practice, she says. “The beauty of the work draws you in before you realize what you are looking at. Seduction creates this. It is sort of the art part of this. How do you make people want to be in this space, because there is nothing about this story that is particularly easy,” Walker says.

Finally, she reflects on the sugar factory installation, her first foray into public art. “I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the important things about artwork in a public setting is that it actually creates dialogue and sometimes that dialogue is heated,” Walker says. She is familiar with this response to her work, but a much wider and diverse audience is weighing in this time. Which she says is the biggest surprise of all, how “public” the installation is, with about 8,000 people visiting the first weekend, she says.

Regardless, Walker is more than satisfied with her sphinx. She wanted to create “something instantly recognizable that will contain all of our histories. The space needed a face,” she says. “I wanted to make the work for someone who looked like me.” CT

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker was commissioned by Creative Time, a nonprofit that presents public art projects. The installation is on view through July 6, 2014 at the Domino Sugar Factory, South First Street at Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

FOR MORE ON KARA WALKER, read a Culture Type review of her recent book, “Kara Walker: Dust Jackets for the Niggerati.”

IMAGES: From top, Kara Walker, “A Subtlety,” 2014. Photography by Jason Wyche | Courtesy Creative Time; Kara Walker by Sari Goodfriend via Creative Time