Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Evokes Call From Black Women: ‘We Are Here.’

By Jamilah King Jun 23, 2014

Kara Walker, the black artist who is known, loved and sometimes begrudged for making slavery-inspired silhouettes, hasn’t said an awful lot in public about about her latest work, "A Subtlety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby." Instead, the giant Sphinx made of white sugar with the head and backside of a mammy and the brown babies fashioned out of unrefined sugar speak volumes."I don’t really see it as just about race,"Walker told Audie Cornish at NPR in May. "I mean, I think that my work is about trying to get a grasp on history."

kara_walker_sugar.jpgThe history that Walker is trying to excavate came hurtling into the present yesterday as throngs of people of color–including many black women–came to the abandoned Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn to view the exhibit together. Known as "We Are Here," the event was billed as "a chance for [the exhibit’s] thousands of daily visitors to reflect on history before the old factory space is replaced by high rises."  More than a thousand users RSVP’d on Facebook and participants wore black stickers with "We Are Here" scrawled across them in white letters. People were handed pamphlets with a timeline dating back to 1884 and they were invited to share their reflections about the exhibit on a wall near its exit.

Much of the discourse around the exhibit has changed over the past month. Hundreds of people still wait in a line that snakes down Kent Avenue to see it. But the work has also provoked frustrated responses from people of color who have felt alienated by a statue so centered on the subjugation of a black woman’s body. Instagram is filled with demeaning images of white people posing in front of Walker’s Sphinx.

That’s why the "We Are Here" event was created, said organizer Nadia Williams. "I was really shocked about the lack of people of color [attending] this show," said Williams, who had come to the exhibit twice before and was familiar with Walker’s previous work. "I also didn’t expect all of the inappropriate visual representation that’s been happening [on Instagram] and even just the lack of respect [in] how people move through the space."

Williams worked with a loosely knit group of artists and educators to organize the event and was pleased with how Creative Time — the non-profit that commissioned Walker’s piece –received their efforts."The really wonderful thing about this work is that it’s public so there’s room to have interventions, she said. "It’s not enough to just assume that people [of color] will show up. If you want to have people of color show up to an art show or to anything from which they’ve been historically excluded, you have to make an active effort."

Some people affiliated with the collective wish that Creative Time had done more to curate the experience. Salome Asega, a black artist and former Creative Time fellow, said that she had to work up the courage to view the Sphinx in person because of all the controversial photos she’d seen in the media. "It’s not like I wanted Creative Time to tell me exactly what to think or how to feel," she said.."But what would’ve been most valuable for people coming in and out of the show is a space where we could have engaged with the artist or some of the producers to just ask questions. That was the curatorial responsibility, to provide a space for dialogue."

In the absence of an official guide to the work some participants took matters into their own hands. At one point during the afternoon, Nick Powers, a professor who teaches black literature at SUNY Westbury, stood at the Sphinx’s backside to warn viewers about the significance of posing for comical photos in front of it. His words drew applause from some nearby spectators."What a lot of people of color in this room are feeling but just haven’t said out loud is that they don’t like how folks pose in front of this statue dedicated to the violence of slavery," Powers said. "It’s actually a collective feeling."

Moments later, a young white woman working with Creative Time came over to ask that Powers make it clear that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the organization. Several women of color who overheard the encounter questioned why Creative Time had not instead confronted the numerous participants who had taken offensive photographs in front of the sculpture.

But such tense interactions are to be expected when dealing with work that deals with race so specifically. Still, Walker’s work remains deeply resonant, said Bill Gaskins, a Cornell University art professor."One of the things that people forget is that art at its best is much more of a reflection of the viewer than it is of the maker. All of the sweetness and the bitterness of the response to this work is what makes it art."