Arts + Life
8:36 am
Wed May 28, 2014

Artist Kara Walker Draws Us Into Bitter History With Something Sweet

Originally published on Fri May 16, 2014 8:00 pm

Kara Walker was barely out of art school when she won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, in 1997. Back then, her early work shocked audiences in part because her murals looked so charming from a distance. Black paper shadow portraits of colonial figures seemed to dance on white gallery walls; but lean in and you'd find your nose pressed up against images of slavery's horrors — mammies, masters, lynchings and sexual violence.

In other words, Walker is used to filling a room. But this spring she was asked to fill a warehouse — the abandoned Domino Sugar factory in New York. It's about to be leveled to make way for condos and offices, but before it goes, Walker was asked to use this cavernous, urban ruin for something special.

Walker took me on a tour of the show a day before it opened. The factory is covered in sugar — it almost looks like insulation or burned cotton candy.

"It's a little bit sticky in some areas ..." she said. "There's sugar caked up in the rafters."

I was so busy trying not to get molasses on my shoes that when I turned the corner, I was stunned. There in the middle of this dark hall was a bright, white sphinx. The effect is the opposite of those white-walled galleries; a dark space and a towering white sculpture made of — what else? — sugar.

"What we're seeing, for lack of a better term, is the head of a woman who has very African, black features," Walker explained. "She sits somewhere in between the kind of mammy figure of old and something a little bit more recognizable — recognizably human. ... [She has] very full lips; high cheekbones; eyes that have no eyes, [that] seem to be either looking out or closed; and a kerchief on her head. She's positioned with her arms flat out across the ground and large breasts that are staring at you."

Walker has dreamed up a "subtlety" — that's what sugar sculptures were called in medieval times. They were a luxury confectioners created for special occasions.

To understand where all this is going, you need look no further than Walker's teasingly long title for the show: "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."

I know, it's a mouthful. But Walker has this wide smile and as she sweeps her hands around in broad gestures, white tides of sugar dust ripple at the edge of her feet — and she sells it.

"It was very fun and childlike to, you know, have your hands in a bucket full of sugar, or a 50-pound bag of sugar, throwing it out onto the floor," she says.

She's doing what she does best: drawing you in with something sweet, something almost charming, before you realize you've admired something disturbing. In this case, that's the horror-riddled Caribbean slave trade that helped fuel the industrial gains of the 18th and 19th centuries; a slave trade built to profit from an insatiable Western market for refined sugar treats and rum.

"Basically, it was blood sugar," Walker says. "Like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands."

She explains that to make the sugar, the cane had to be fed into large mills by hand. It was a dangerous process: Slaves lost hands, arms, limbs and lives.

"I've been kind of back and forth with my reverence for sugar," Walker says. "Like, how we're all kind of invested in its production without really realizing just what goes into it; how much chemistry goes into extracting whiteness from the sugar cane."

Walker went down a rabbit hole of sugar history, at one point stumbling on some black figurines online — the type of racial tchotchkes that turn up in a sea of mammy cookie jars. They were ceramic, brown-skinned boys carrying baskets. Those were the size of dolls, but Walker's are 5 feet high, some made entirely of molasses-colored candy. Fifteen of them are posed throughout the factory floor, leading the way to her sugar sphinx.

The boys are cute and apple-cheeked, but they're also kind of scary — some of the melted candy looks a lot like blood.

"I knew that the candy ones wouldn't last," Walker says. "That was part of the point was that they were going to be in this non-climate-controlled space, slowly melting away and disintegrating. But what's happened is we lost two of these guys in the last two days or so."

Losing those figures in service of the sugar is the slave trade in a nutshell.

"Also in a nutshell," Walker says, "and maybe a little bit hammer-over-the-head, is that some of the pieces of the broken boys I threw into the baskets of the unbroken boys."

OK, that's not so subtle, but it's also not unusual for Kara Walker. She's dressed in a shiny, oversize baseball jacket emblazoned with the gold face of King Tut on it. I ask her if at a certain point she worries about doing work that is seen as being just about race.

"I don't really see it as just about race," she says. "I mean, I think that my work is about trying to get a grasp on history. I mean, I guess it's just kind of a trap, in a way, that I decided to set my foot into early on, which is the trap of race — to say that it's about race when it's kind of about this larger concern about being."

I tell her it's almost impossible to talk about our history without talking about race. She replies: "There [are] scholarly conversations about race and then there's the kind of meaty, unresolved, mucky blood lust of talking about race where I always feel like the conversation is inconclusive."

Inconclusive, but for artist Kara Walker, ongoing.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The artist Kara Walker was barely out of art school when she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant - you know, the Genius Grant - almost 20 years ago.

Now her early work shocked people in the '90s, partly because her murals look so charming from a distance, shadow portraits made of black paper, the colonial figures seem to be dancing on the white walls of those galleries. But lean in and you'd find your nose pressed up against images of slavery's horrors - mammies, masters, lynchings and sexual violence.

Kara Walker, she's used to filling a room. This spring, she was asked to fill a warehouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

CORNISH: The Domino Sugar factory in New York. Vacant now, decommissioned 10 years ago.

KARA WALKER: So it's a little bit sticky in some areas.

CORNISH: The factory is about to be leveled to make way for condos and offices - the usual urban gentrification development. But before it goes, Walker was asked to use this cavernous urban ruin for something special.

WALKER: Yeah. So we're walking down into some of the bowels of the factory and every surface is covered with molasses, actually, and sugar.

CORNISH: Walker took me in a day before the show opened. Walking into the warehouse, I was so busy trying not to get molasses on my shoes that when I turned the corner I just...

Wow. We've entered your world, Kara Walker.

WALKER: We have. So, we've just turned a corner.

CORNISH: Yeah.

WALKER: And...

CORNISH: And there in the middle of this dark, dark hall was a bright white sphinx.

Oh, my god.

And the effect is the opposite of those white walled galleries, this dark space and then this towering white sculpture. I find myself almost whispering around it.

OK. So this figure, if people can just picture, like the sphinx in Egypt, has that same...

WALKER: Same posture.

CORNISH: Same posture.

WALKER: Yeah.

CORNISH: But very different looks.

WALKER: Right.

CORNISH: Talk about what we are seeing.

WALKER: So I guess what we are seeing, for lack of a better term, is the head of a woman who has very African black features. She sits somewhere in between the kind of mammy figure of old and something a little bit more recognizable.

CORNISH: Recognizably human. So the kind of wide nose and very full lips.

WALKER: Very full lips, high cheek bones, eyes that have no eyes, seem to be either looking out or closed and a kerchief on her head and large breasts that are staring at you.

CORNISH: Walker has dreamed up a subtly. And not in the way you're thinking. In medieval times sugar sculptures were called subtleties, a luxury confectioners would create for special occasions.

Look no further than Walker's teasingly long title to understand where all this is going. "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."

I know, a mouth full.

(LAUGHTER)

WALKER: It could've been longer, but...

CORNISH: But Walker has this wide smile and she sweeps her hands around in broad gestures as she talks. And white tides of sugar dust ripple at the edge of her feet and she sells it.

WALKER: It was very fun and childlike to, you know, have your hands in a 50-pound bag of sugar throwing it out onto the floor.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: She's doing what she does best, drawing you in with something sweet, something almost charming before you realize you've admired something disturbing.

In this case, the horror-riddled Caribbean slave trade that helped fuel the industrial gains of the 18th and 19th centuries. A slave trade built to profit from an insatiable Western market for refined sugar treats and rum.

WALKER: Basically, it was blood sugar. Like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands. You know, that even crushing the sugar cane, went through these large mills and had to be put in by hand so slaves lost hands on arms. They lost limbs getting pulled into the machine, whole lives. That alone, not to mention the conditions that, you know, it's a labor that's from dawn to dusk.

CORNISH: Honestly I have to like pause. The smell is starting to make me a little bit woozy.

WALKER: Are you woozy? Do you wanna go outside?

CORNISH: No, no, like, it's part of the experience, right? Keeps you off balance in an odd way.

WALKER: Yeah, I mean it's funny. I've been kind of back and forth with my reverence for sugar. Like how we're all kind of invested in its production without really realizing just what goes into it. How much chemistry goes into extracting whiteness from the sugar cane.

CORNISH: Walker went down a rabbit hole of sugar history, at one point, stumbling onto some black figurines online - the kind of racial tchotchkes that turn up in a sea of mammy cookie jars. They were these ceramic, brown-skinned boys carrying baskets. But those were the size of dolls.

WALKER: Be careful of this one.

CORNISH: Walker's sculptures are five feet high and some of them are made entirely of molasses-colored candy. Fifteen of them pose throughout the factory floor, leaning against steel beams, leading the way to her sugar sphinx.

WALKER: This one we're looking at now has a bunch of bananas in his hand and he's kind of translucent because he's made of candy. We found that working with candy at this scale is extremely tricky.

CORNISH: They're scary in a way.

WALKER: Yeah.

CORNISH: They're very cute, apple-cheeked but I have to admit when I came around the corner, it almost made me jump out of my skin because some of the melted candy, it has the effect of blood or violence.

WALKER: Yeah. I knew that the candy ones wouldn't last. That was part of the point was that they were going to be in this non climate controlled space, slowly melting away and disintegrating, but what has happened is we have lost two of these guys in the last two days or so. So if we go over here you'll see what happened.

CORNISH: Not so ironic, the irony of losing these figures in service of the sugar. I mean, that's the slave trade in a nutshell.

WALKER: And I think also in a nutshell and maybe a little bit hammer over the head is some of the pieces of the broken boys I threw into the baskets of the unbroken boys.

CORNISH: OK, not subtle.

But not unusual for Kara Walker. And she's not afraid of that. She's dressed in a shiny oversized baseball jacket emblazoned with the gold face of King Tut on it, front and back.

Walker mulls over history, slavery again and again in her art. And I asked her if at a certain point she worries about that, about being an artist doing work that is seen as being just about race.

WALKER: I don't really see it as just about race. I mean, I think that my work is about trying to get a grasp on history. I mean, I guess it's just kind of a trap in a way that I decided to set my foot into early on, just the trap of race. Like to say that it's about race when it's kind of about this maybe larger concern about being.

CORNISH: It's almost impossible to talk about our history, certainly American history, without talking about race.

WALKER: Yeah.

CORNISH: Just like trying to talk about the sugar trade without talking about slavery.

WALKER: Of course, but it's how we talk about it I guess that's the thing. It's like, you know, there's scholarly conversations about race and then there's the kind of like meaty, unresolved, mucky bloodlust of talking about race where I always feel like the conversation is inconclusive.

CORNISH: Inconclusive but for artist Kara Walker, ongoing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR MAMA")

B.B. KING: (Singing) Sugar mama, sugar mama, sugar mama...

CORNISH: Her latest work called "A Subtlety" will be at the Domino Sugar refinery in Brooklyn, New York through July.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR MAMA")

KING: (Singing) Sugar mama, Sugar mama, please come back to me. Yes, bring me back my sugar, oh, Lord and ease my misery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.