It’s a massive sphinx coated in sugar.
In one of my classes, we looked at Kara Walker’s artwork, “A Subtlety.” Created in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory in 2014, Walker’s piece is a “homage to the unpaid or 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,” according to Creative Time’s description of her work.
At first glance, nothing about her piece is subtle. Not only is it huge, but it’s striking, with its shiny white sugar and resemblance to a woman. The sphinx’s body has female genitalia, and since the sculpture is so large, this aspect stands out prominently.
Walker is considered one of the most important Black female artists for her work about race and gender. Yet she has often been criticized for her portrayal of women and African Americans. Mostly known for her paper-cut silhouettes, many think she depicts the stereotypical curves and features of African Americans, perpetuating these misconceptions.
But her title, “A Subtlety,” hints at what many people are missing. This isn’t just a sculpture of a white sphinx. It’s a representation of our nation’s ugly sugar history, partially stemming from the sugar sculptures, or “subtleties” that were eaten or used as decoration in aristocratic European households during the Middle Ages. It’s a depiction of the molds America has stuck Black women in, and an ode to those who have served and suffered under the sugar industry.
Walker posted this statement in 2017 for her works appearing in Sikkema Jenkins & Co.: “I don’t really feel the need to write a statement about a painting show. I know what you all expect from me, and I have complied up to a point. But frankly I am tired, tired of standing up, being counted, tired of ‘having a voice,’ or worse, ‘being a role model,’ Tired, true, of being a featured member of my racial group and/or my gender niche.”
Some people called this nothing more than a publicity stunt. But to me, her words sound too exhausted, too weighed down to be meant for attracting attention. Walker is actually trying to tell us something, and she’s made it pretty clear.
Her words hit perfectly at one of my greatest frustrations with art lately, and her statement makes me feel heavy-hearted for the way artists are put through this. I can expect all I want, or discuss how racist a piece is or isn’t, but I’m not the artist. And as someone who has created art, I relate to the difficulty of considering my audience’s hopes.
It’s important to highlight whatever or whomever we want in our art, whether it be minorities or gender or politics. It’s also important to have conversations about these topics, because they make us aware and conscious of new ideas.
But ultimately, art still boils down to expression. Artists should have the liberty to express what they want — without the fear that drawing a woman’s lips as being fuller will be “racist” because it’s too stereotypical, without the fear of showing Black women as being “too sexual” and therefore even more “racist.”
Sure, Walker invites us to think about race and gender with her works because she creates her pieces with that intention. Yet when I look at her works, especially her silhouette piece, “The Means to an End…A Shadow Drama in Five Acts,” I’m not thinking about whether the shapes of the people in it are racist because they’re stereotypical or overtly sexual. I’m thinking about how the woman in the middle looks like she’s dancing. I’m wondering how Walker decided to make it a piece in five “acts.” And I’m feeling sad because the little girl held by her neck, naked, dangling off the edge of a cliff looks so frail and helpless.
Walker’s art is important because it makes me feel the pain of Black history with all of its violence and abuse. But like Walker, I’m tired of solely focusing on whether art is “racist” or “not racist.”
After a certain point, we need to just look and feel.