Janna’s Art Crawl: Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”

Janna Adelstein, ’15

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety has been called one of the most remarkable large-scale exhibitions currently on display in the U.S. Located in the old Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, A Subtlety is a commentary on the trans-continental sugar trade and slave industry that dominated the 19th century. Revealingly, the piece is subtitled “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.”

One thing to note about this exhibition is that the wait is incredibly long. It took around an hour before I was let in, but it was certainly worth the wait. When I finally walked inside the old sugar factory, the scent of sugar was overpowering. Not only are all of the sculptures coated in sugar, but the walls are stained with molasses as well, perhaps to put the viewer in the environment of the slaves who labored all day in sugar cane fields.

On its outskirts, the exhibition features several small sculptures of young African boys holding baskets. These statues seem to depict the oppressive living conditions of child slaves who were forced to collect sugar. The sculptures are coated in molasses, which drips on to the floor, seeming to represent the sweat and tears that go into this type of labor.

Towards the back of the factory lies the main piece of this show, a humongous statue of an adult slave woman, constructed from Styrofoam and coated in 160,000 pounds of granulated sugar (donated by Domino Sugar). This statue is supposed to be modeled after the artist herself, adding another layer of complexity to this fascinating work. The statue stands in a sphinxlike position, holding her head high with pride, although keeping her face serious, almost as though she is scolding the viewer. The statue stands tall at 35 ft., and is nearly 75. ft. long. To me, the statue represents the strength of slave women who had to endure backbreaking labor in the sugar cane fields. But the piece also showcases Walker’s immeasurable talents and efforts. It is clear just from viewing the statue that constructing it was no easy feat — much like the daily labor of the women the statue represents.

All of Walker’s pieces carry the burden of slavery and emotion, and at times, Walker seems to be accusing the viewer of having been responsible for the sugar trade and the slave system that supported it. Walker’s artwork shows that we are all part of the machine that allowed this slave trade to occur, and that we all bear the burden of modern slavery, even if all we do is consume the products of such a system.

Something interesting to note about this exhibition is that Domino Sugar in part sponsors it, despite the exhibition’s attempts to criticize the sugar industry. I would definitely recommend that you visit A Subtlety, as it is not to be missed. The exhibition is on until July 6th, Fridays 4-8pm and Saturdays and Sundays 12-6pm located at South 1st St. at Kent Avenue in Williamsburg.

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