Sometimes demolishing the past doesn’t change the present.
At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
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
In the time that has passed since writing my article on Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety” (WHEN ART DEALS WITH THE DISTASTEFUL: Kara Walker at the Domino Sugar Factory) more articles have come forward critiquing the exhibit.
On June 30 “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit” was posted in The Indypendent. This powerful article touched on several issues that I felt needed to be addressed. I applaud the writer, Nicholas Powers, for punctuating the space with an action that wasn’t a planned intervention or a performance piece. It was a unprompted visceral response – an appropriate (re)action.
In his article he asked a very important question – what is the role of the curator? I ask – when the curator knows that they are putting out work that is loaded, even potentially volatile is it acceptable for them to just step back and let things play out? Do curators have an obligation to facilitate dialogue and create a safe space for emotional release?
Many people found their experience in the physical space to be quite painful “Black Pain, White Laughter” as Nicholas puts it. The online experience provided an almost unchallenged area for people to act ignorantly – even racist and misogynistic.
Should Creative Time (the team behind “A Subtlety”) have immediately stepped in to address the racism and misogyny? In both spaces they could have intervened. There was an opportunity for a whole other dialogue to take place that would perhaps have lead to more understanding and empathy therefore more respectful behavior.
“It was like a sleeping beehive had been kicked over”
Nicholas called out people for the types of photos they were taken at the back of the sphinx, the location where much of the problematic behaviour has occurred. A Creative Time curator, in an effort to distance the organization from his spontaneous intervention, asked him to tell people he was not part of Creative Time. He writes:
“ A friend cut in, saying loudly that I didn’t have to say shit. They got into a debate that heated up into a verbal fight. Visitors came up to me, some saying I was wrong; others saying I was right.
…It felt great to confront the “white gaze,” the entitled buffoonery of the visitors. But why did we have to?…wasn’t the job of Walker or at least Creative Time’s staff to curate a racially charged artwork? Yes, Walker has the freedom to express herself. Yes, Creative Time has the freedom to organize it. But what do you expect will happen if you put a giant sculpture of a nude black woman, as a Mammy no less, in a public space.
…Instead of challenging the racial power dynamics of white supremacy, Walker and Creative Time, in their naivety or arrogance, I don’t know which, simply made the Domino Sugar Factory a safe place for it.”
For me, that is where the installation failed. The safe space that was created was for those who needed to be challenged the most. The historical dirt, literally baked to the walls of Domino Sugar Factory, was sanitized – much like the process of whitening sugar, a process that requires crushed up bones to do the bleaching. The act of allowing people to document the art with cell phones, cameras and a hashtag also allowed people to mitigate their experience of the work by not being fully present to what was in front of them – the ugly truth and the shadow side of sweet consumption. Instead, the Sugar Sphinx became a tourist trap; like flies to sticky paper people got stuck to the spectacle but emotionally never moved beyond.
This work should have been about collective mourning of a disturbing past and collective consideration as to how our current lifestyles still support modern day slavery.
Malik Thompson writes in his piece “Kara Walker’s Desecrated Cemetery for Blackness”:
“One of the worst things about my experience with the Kara Walker exhibit in Brooklyn was the lack of space available for me to mourn the devastation of Blackness, nor appreciate its power. There were white bodies everywhere I turned; white bodies laughing, white bodies posing for pictures, white bodies giving me strange looks as I solemnly shuffled around the warehouse, white bodies overflowing the space, white bodies spilling into my physical and mental space…
I became uncomfortable, realized that even though this was obviously a cemetery, a place of remembrance and mourning for how Blackness has been distorted and destroyed throughout history, the pain I felt would always take a backseat to the comfort white people seek in lies. In that moment, I began remembering what violation felt like.”
Malik and two friends decided they needed to intervene in the space between the mammy’s breasts in an attempt to reclaim it.
“I suggested to my friends that we pose in front of the mammy sphinx holding up the Black Power fist, with a picture of us doing so to be taken by our white chaperone from our youth organization.
As we stood there, with our fists defiantly raised to the ceiling, the mostly white people in front of us became much quieter, they seemed offended even. Khadijah says she heard people whispering, “It’s not about that…”. One white man gave us a look of bemused indignation, rushing to the space we had just claimed as our own after our picture had been taken, only to pose for yet another smiling portrait in front of the mammy sphinx. Perhaps he did that to prove a point, a point sprung from the murky waters of privilege and ignorance.
And my spirit sank lower into my gut; I could feel it dragging me down towards the molasses-resembling-blood splattered ground.”
The lightness of whiteness and a burdenless history
When one reads the comments in Stephanie Wyatts “The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instragram Capital” the good ol’ ‘reverse-racism’ argument starts to bubble up. She called out white people in her article and that, is just not socially acceptable, even in the context of art speaking on Black Slavery. If this is not an appropriate time when is it?
Stephanie, a Black woman, had to bear witness to jokes about “sugar tits”, “big ass” and “sweet lips” as her racialized body stood in front of sculpture of another racialized body. The sexualized talk directed at a lifeless sphinx (as her own physical presence was ignored) was talk also aimed at her. As the human being standing next to the the ones saying such things she should take it personally.
“I stood in front of a sugar boy carrying a huge basket oozing what began to look more like blood than molasses. I looked to my right and a white kid was licking one of the boys while his parents stood there unfazed. I walked over to get a full-on, yet still-distant view of the giant sphinx. Two seconds later, my eyes exploded and I was crying all over myself.
I obviously didn’t expect to start crying, but it happened and I let those tears run free. I was snapped out of my sob by a white guy yelling, “This is boring!” Tears for my ancestors turned into hot, angry tears. “
Stephanie’s response to all of the callousness, built up upon other times she has had to bear witness to people acting with insensitivity, lead her to write:
“…I’d gotten the sense that deep reverence may not be white people’s spiritual gift. But where’s the respect? How do you not realize that you are currently standing on sacred ground and staring the sickness of our country dead in the face?”
All of these articles are written by African Americans. I didn’t come across any other articles of this type, speaking to a visceral and painful experience, written by anyone that wasn’t Black.
Whiteness / ‘lightness’ is a privilege. It gets you a pass in a lot of places. It shouldn’t get you a pass on ignorant behaviour. The Mammy Sphinx and Sugar Babies speak to a mutual history, slavery exists in the collective memory(s) and the weight of it should be shared. Unfortunately “A Subtlety” demonstrated that many people still see it as a burden belonging only to Black people.
Whether we like it or not, history has intimately intertwined us all and the unknotting shouldn’t have to be done solely by the people who can trace their ancestry back to those who survived the Middle Passage.
Both the physical and online spaces that “A Subtlety” provided were spaces where white people could have at least helped to carry the burden. Instead the actions of many led to the piling on of more weight.
“A Subtlety” exposed that the not so subtle expressions of racism exist even in places created for homage to its impact.
The Black female body is never neutral. She can never rest.
“I walked into the exhibit feeling alone and I walked out of the exhibit feeling lonely. To be a parody and a parent. To be a black woman and pun.
It is here when I decide that I will bring my daughter next weekend. She should know how to arm herself against a world that never considers her skin, her ancestry, her people. She should know her body is always up for discussion, whether she initiates the conversation or not. She should know her pain will always be greeted with a whimsical patronizing hand.
She should know how to celebrate, defend and demand her own song and rich history be acknowledged and honored.”
~ Chelcee Johns
All images by Leah Snyder for Mixed Bag Mag.