WHEN ART DEALS WITH THE DISTASTEFUL: Kara Walker at the Domino Sugar Factory

Creative Time presents “A Subtlety” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

I make a scattered dash to get to the Kara Walker exhibit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Hot day, with an intense late-spring / almost-summer sun blasting me and the pavement I am pounding. I get lost then located. I turn the corner to see the longest lineup I have seen for art in sometime.

Kara Walker. A big sign makes it clear this is an event!

“At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker 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”

 

Once inside the Domino Sugar compound there is a long march into the factory where another blast of heat hits you. This time it’s combined with a sweet smell.

The immediate feeling is of being overwhelmed. The scene is fantastic! Honey coloured light dappling a cement floor textured by the wear and tear of once busy workers. More texture on the rusted out walls that offer a palette of cobalt blues and deep muscovado browns. Beyond the crowds, at the far end of the factory, this gorgeous, towering, powder-white statue rises up – intense with her omnipresent stare.

But then your eyes adjust to the dim warehouse light and your nose notices that the once inviting smell has turned into a toxic sweetness. The scent becomes more rank as you move closer to the sugar sphinx. It mixes with dust and hot human sweat. It doesn’t smell good and the scene that at first seemed stunning loses its charm as you notice you are surrounded by statues of small children, barefooted and barely clothed, standing so they reach slightly above the level of your heart. They each hold a gathering basket. Although they are fixed in their location they seem to multiply and move because as groups of sightseers wander off another child emerges through the dusty light.

It is these children that become the most haunting part of this installation. Constructed from resin and covered in molasses, their bodies leak onto the concrete floor leaving a puddle of black gummy moisture that traps your feet. The dark slick reflects back the faces of the meandering masses that approach the bodies like they are curios.

They are fascinating. Their technical production makes them close to life-like despite the fact that their heads loom too large on their spindly frames. Some even seem to smile but you can’t be sure if it is the case because their face may have shifted as the molasses melts.



The crowd bends to see them face to face, the crowd comes close to touching, but only the little ones, without socialized inhibition, reach out. As they do their parents snap photos, telling them to hold still and smile.

What becomes even more curious then the sugar statues is how the crowd reacts. Met with the visual reminder of the slave trade people pose with the sugar babies flashing a tourist’s grin.

When confronted with the sweetness of life gone sour what should be our appropriate response?

I wonder why they smile in a scene that, if you pause for a moment to think of the reasons Kara Walker’s sugar mammy and molasses children have been constructed in this space, is distressing. At the edge of the East River, for over 150 years, the Domino Sugar building was used as a processing plant for the imported cane that came to America from the colonies. Blood sugar –  a term used to demonstrate how the sugar trade was bound to the slave trade yet the crowds want to be memorialized with the look of pleasure on their face.

It’s not that the crowds seem unsympathetic to the histories Kara references. Racially mixed (albeit predominately white), I am sure the majority are aware of what they are witnessing.

So how do we commemorate our experiences with art that is meant to be challenging? As we ram head on into the digital (sur)realities of the 21st Century have we stopped to think about our decorum when we bear witness to problematic subject matter? Have we been educated on how to be critical; have we considered how to be respectful?

Historically cameras were restricted in art spaces but now, often, they are allowed. With a population that is snap happy and needing to share they were there what does this mean for the way we now interact with art?

Are we in the actual moment or does the camera mitigate us from needing to be fully present in those times when we are confronted with difficult realities, realities that may even challenge our lifestyle choices?

We are primed from a small age how to interact with a camera. Like the parents instructing their curious kids, we are told to ‘smile’. Should there be times when we ask ourselves, is our documentation appropriate? Could there be a better way for us to use this ubiquitous technology we have access to?

Upon entering the exhibit a sign reads “Please do not touch the artwork but do share pictures on social media” and the hashtag #KaraWalkerDomino supplied.

As I write, the trending content for this tag is Jay-Z, Beyoncé and their baby daughter Blue. They have been spotted on a Father’s Day outing to the Brooklyn location.

Besides Beyoncé (and the occasional off-colour comment alluding to the Sphinx’s sexualized nudity), the tweets are mostly of people expressing how impressed they are by the artist’s work but the opportunity for a more expansive discussion, even if only in 140 characters is missed.

People seem willing to participate in the spectacle but are they willing to participate in active change?

This sweet stuff is serious stuff.

Kara Walker’s work is not just a memorial to a past travesty. Everyone’s sweet tooth is still sucking bodies into modern slavery and bonded labour. The syrup that drips from the statues of the children is like a living organism that marks the space in real time. The legacy of the sugar trade is in our present moment.  When the Domino Sugar Factory is finally demolished, clearing way for condos, what will have changed?

Social media exposes where we are at culturally. The evidence left behind by hashtags demonstrates that there is much work to be done around how best to digest what we should find distasteful.

Inside our pockets are powerful tools. Technology has given us the means to not only discuss our reactions beyond our immediate circle but also archive them for a future population of new users. We each have the capacity to participate in building extensive and transformational legacies around the art that impacts us.

When the molasses evaporates and powdery dust swept away what remains?

Hopefully an expansive documentation of how people were deeply moved by the work and a record of thoughtful interactions in 140 characters or less.

#KaraWalkerDomino

#ModernSlavery

 #Sugar

“A Subtlety” is presented by Creative Time.

 “Over the past four decades, Creative Time has commissioned and presented ambitious public art projects with thousands of artists throughout New York City, across the country, around the world—and now even in outer space. Our work is guided by three core values: art matters, artists’ voices are important in shaping society, and public spaces are places for creative and free expression.” Read more on Creative Time

The exhibition continues through until July 6, 2014.

Hours:
Fridays 4–8pm
Saturdays 12–6pm
Sundays 12–6pm.

& FYI – be prepared for a long line up!


black stroke

RECOMMENDED READING ON KARA WALKER AT THE DOMINO SUGAR FACTORY:

EDWIDGE DANTICAT: The Price of Sugar

“Midway through Candide, Voltaire’s famously naive protagonist enters Dutch-controlled 18th-century Suriname, where he encounters “a negro stretched upon the ground, with only one moiety of his clothes, that is, of his blue linen drawers; the poor man had lost his left leg and his right hand.”

“Good God!” exclaims Candide, who proceeds to ask the man why he’s in such terrible shape.

“When we work at the sugar-canes,” the man answers, “and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.”

We still eat sugar at a similar price.

And not just in Europe, but all over the world.”

Read more of Edwidge’s essay…

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SHAILJA PATEL: Unpour

“White sugar has always been for rich people. White sugar has always been guest sugar, company sugar, sugar for public display. Parlor sugar…

…It takes bones to get sugar white. Thousands of pounds of cow bones burned to bone char are used to bleach sugar in processing plants. My Hindu parents, for whom beef was the ultimate taboo, did not know this when they proudly displayed white sugar lumps in their silver sugar bowl…

…Some of us take our sweet dirty. Extracted. Not poured.”

Read more of Shailja Patel’s Unpour…

black stroke

JAMILAH KING: The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art

“The overwhelming whiteness of viewers isn’t unique to Walker’s exhibit. There are more than 17,500 museums in the United States that are visited by 850 million people annually, the vast majority of whom are white. Art, particularly when it’s commissioned and it’s covered in important publications like the New York Times, is often seen as the exclusive domain of white folks. Museums, dating back to their modern origins in the 18th century, were usually built by wealthy white patrons and enjoyed by middle and upper class European families. In the American context, they served a specific purpose for opening up and exploring a new continent, according to Ford Bell, head of the American Alliance of Museums who was quoted by NPR in 2008. People of color — their customs, their cultures and, in the infamous case of Sara Baartman, their bodies —  were usually the object of those white gazes. But in recent years, as the country’s demographics have shifted in favor of a so-called majority-minority, the art world has made great strides in featuring the work of artists of color. It’s hard to imagine any work by an artist like Walker or Carrie Mae Weems, at the Guggenheim 50 years ago.”

Read more of Jamilah King’s article…

black stroke

CAIT MUNRO: Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Spawns Offensive Instagram Photos

“…Meant to serve as a commentary on the sugar cane trade, and a cultural critique of slavery and perceptions of black women throughout history, the work is part Sphinx, part racist Mammy stereotype, and is coated in sugar. It features exaggerated features including breasts, a bottom, and a vagina. As Walker told artnet News, “Nudity is a thing, apparently, that people have a problem with; not slavery, or racism, but female bodies, or bottoms.”

And sadly, she is correct. While few appear to have responded to the work with charges of indecency, some visitors have been unable to stop themselves from mocking and sexualizing the work, uploading photos pretending to cup its breasts or tongue its buttocks. This gross behavior has, understandably, struck a nerve with feminists and racial equality activists alike. Yesha Callahan of The Root writes, “History has shown us time and time again how a black woman’s body was (and sometimes still is) objectified. From the days of the slave trade to even having black butts on display in music videos, the black woman’s body seems to easily garner laughs and mockery, even if it’s made out of sugar.”

Read more of Cait Munro’s article…

black stroke

RESOURCES ON MODERN SLAVERY AND HOW TO CREATE CHANGE:

Walk Free

Not For Sale Campaign

Made In The Free World

Do you know your Slavery Footprint?
Find out by taking The Made in the Free World Survey


Images of Kara Walker “A Subtlety” installation by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.

MIXED BAG MAG DOES NEW YORK: Art Smart in NYC

looking up at tall skyscrapers with sign on one that reads MOMA

From Haida artist Robert Davidson to American artist Kara Walker Mixed Bag Mag covered a lot of artistic ground.  

My art muscle is damn strong! In 4 days I was able to cover (almost) everything. It was a major marathon (Bed-Stuy to Manhattan – up to Harlem – back to Brooklyn) but I arrived at the finish line inspired by all that New York has to offer right now.

It was the small-but-mighty shows that grabbed my attention the most and made me regret that I wouldn’t be staying longer.

(in order of my schedule)

The MoMA – There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33” (on until June 22)

The National Museum of the American Indian Robert Davidson: Abstract Impulse (on until September 14)

The MET – Now You See It: Photography and Concealment (on until September 1)

Acquavella GalleryJean Michel Basquiat Drawing (closing today!)

The Studio Museum HarlemCarrie Mae Weems: The Museum Series (on until June 29)

The Brooklyn MuseumWitness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties (on until July 13)

& of course Surveillapocalypse with the 007 Collective and artCodex at Five Myles Gallery Brooklyn. The work of Brooklyn based artist David Wallace was beautiful to witness.

group of people sitting and sanding in front of brick building

words on a wall that say Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties

I have been around the world –  East Berlin during the Reunification of Germany, L.A. during the Rodney King riots, even Johannesburg leading up to the elections where Mandela’s win changed the course of history…

…but never New York! 

Sometimes living close by a place makes you take it for granted. This trip was about righting that wrong and finally showing some love to New York. And the timing couldn’t have been better for gathering MIXED BAG MAG style content! Also on the agenda was Kara Walker’s A Subtlety at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn as well as seeing Ai Wei Wei’s According to What for a second time at the Brooklyn Museum. It was interesting comparing this iteration of the show to last year’s at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Another chance at comparison will be when the AGO hosts Before and after the Horizon: Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes, currently on at the National Museum of the American Indian.

words on a wall that say Draped Down and a reproduction of a mixed media of a young black woman

When you deep dive into a city’s art scene to explore different neighbourhoods with their private galleries,  artist-run centres and national institutions you witness how much art enriches the lives of the inhabitants as well as the visitors. Life wouldn’t be as wonderful without artists!

I got a little lazy pulling out my clunky pro camera so I decided instead to capture New York thru the lightness of a cell cam. Here is just a small sampling of what I experienced. There will be more trips south of the border in an effort to uncover how artists transform urban spaces and cultural places but for this moment I was just a 21st Century flâneur with a phone.

sculpture made out of rough wood posts and bent shiny metal, people walking by
White painted canvas wrapped with knotted fabric that projects out from the canvas
City scape of large skyscrapers and smaller residential buildings
Large stone sculpture of woman and man with larger classic style building and skyscraper behind it
Two entrances to two art exhibits
Panel of actors on stage, mixed men and women
two women stand with back to the camera looking at a gallery with an installation in progress, ladders, tables
Woman standing in front of a brick facade gallery with the address and sign that says Five MylesMaria Hupfield stands in front of “Splash” a sculpture by Haitian-American artist Engles.
The inside of a gallery with classic architecture, a greek style female sculpture and framed abstract drawing to its right
Up close photograph of a abstract drawing
two front stair cases leading up to fancy doors, plants lining the stairs
Black man busking in front of street side display of paintings
Skyscape of modern buildings with older style architecture, the profile of the Guggenheim
inside the Guggenheim Museum with people sitting in the centre area and the words Italian Futurism on the wall
Looking up to the large skylight in the atrium of the Guggenheim
The modern architecture of the Guggenheim Museum against the sky with clouds
Poster advertising for the Metropolitan Museum, old painting of a young black man with ornate headdress facing an antique photograph of a middle age white woman
Black and white photograph series of a naked white man walking with classic Greek painting of nude black male figures running
Posters for the Metropolitan Museum with photograph of classic bust of white man mouth open screaming on left and classic Japanese style painting of a Geisha
Advertising for the Met with painting of white woman and photograph of a pharaoh on right. Words One Met Many Worlds on the posters.
The staircase leading up to the Metropolitan Museum with people milling about, day on left, night on right
two classic greek or roman marble sculptures in an elaborate hallway, man on left, woman on right
Crystal decanter on left, marble statue of a nude woman, her back to camera, on right
The outside of a theatre with the marquee and sign saying Apollo
American flag waving from a building in black and red stripes, green background with black stars against a blue sky
Painting on a metal pull down door with mural of Malcolm X, Obama, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. Reads Share the Dream, Welcome to Heavenly Harlem
Photograph of a tv screen with video of 3 black men singing and performing. The ages of the 3 men vary from middle age to old
Large scale painted canvas, black background with white lettering from top to bottom
Young black woman laughing and talking to young white man with beard, standing in a subway station
Street scene in an industrial area, people waiting at the corner, poster that reads Kara Walker
Little girl picking up another little girl to look in basket of a sculpture of a child. Black woman looking at the sculpture of a black child labourer
Large white sculpture of a black woman with a handkerchief wrap on head, people standing looking at the sculpture
Brick work and ornate decorative patterns carved in stone and white text painted that reads Watch Your Head
Street art project with words Before I Die I Will painted with chalkboard paint and peoples answers scribbled in chalk
Street art project with words Before I Die I Will painted with chalkboard paint and peoples answers scribbled in chalk
Old white brick building boarded up against blue sky full of clouds
One story high brick industrial buildings painted in yellow and other bright colours against a blue sky
Large neo-classical building with clouds in the background, The Brooklyn Museum
Photograph of a museum show reading Connecting Cultures
Photograph of a museum show reading Connecting Cultures
Young black boy with notepad and pencil looking up at classic European painting of a white woman
close up shot of wood paneled structure with holes that show other structures behind it. The shape repeats a crescent moon
A poster on the ground that says This Is Indian Land. Cardboard stencil with words Surveillapocalypse cut out of it and lying on poster
Spray painted outline of a motif that is an Ojibwa Thunderbird
Cut out of birds attached to a mobile that moves around a screen with a photograph of a man projected on it
A bridge at night, lined with lights that are out of focus.
Drag show in nightclub, white queen descending the stairs with black queen in back with microphone
stone and pavement on a street with the words Protect Your Magic painted on it

BEFORE I DIE I WILL: Go to New York City


Woman's feet in sandals standing on concrete slab that reads Brooklyn Concrete Made In CanadaAbove images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.