I never went to Brooklyn. Maybe that makes me one of the lucky ones? My first encounter with A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby exhibit was via Facebook. A well intentioned friend had tagged my name above an article about the work. Upon seeing the cover photo, I avoided the post for two weeks. Although I dutifully clicked the “like” button, I could not view the content. Like most people, I was overwhelmed by the Sphinx.
Oh, that Sphinx. Initially, I could say nothing comprehensible. “Embarrassed pain, flung naked, and why?” were just a few soundbites sprinting over the hyperventilation. But as a long fan of Kara Walker, I gave the exhibit another try. An Art 21 exclusive provided my second chance. I got to hear Walker personally discuss her work and provide some historical context. In the video she stated a sugar subtlety was a delicacy made exclusively for and in the image of it’s consumer. The consumer being particularly “royalty, nobility and clergy.” With this new understanding, I immediately thought “is this a work about body sovereignty?!”
In Global Feminist Ethics edited by Rebecca Whisnant, and Peggy DesAutels, it states that:
A person’s body is her territory — not something she merely owns, but something she is. In much the ways that peoples typically require and seek sovereign territory to support and make possible their common life, a person must have effective sovereignty over her body in order to enact fully her humanity and her particular identity as a person (p.161).
So to me, in the safety of my apartment, Walker was inviting me to eat myself. To partake in effective sovereignty over myself as a person, by reflecting on my own history. She was asking me to bite into what it still means to be black and a woman in America. Here was my image on a national scale, and now was the time to digest it.
Like the mammoth mammy, the experience is at once concrete and ephemeral. Concrete in the sense that the politics playing upon my body are fixed into a gargantuan, material structure; otherwise known as the American caste system. However like sugar, the construction is ephemeral. Common granulated white sugar only lasts indefinitely, if it is untouched. Such a fact debunks the impervious impression of a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy and reminds us that anything is erodible through resistance. What is created can be crushed.
Thus in my seclusion, the taste of the Marvelous Sugar Baby was not sweet, but I believed it was mine! At last, it was mine! My territory had been returned; my sovereignty recognized. By being served this over due delicacy, I was avenging my ancestors, whose limbs and lives were commonly mutilated in the sugar mills, and who did not get to have an authority over their own likeness—their own humanity. Far away from the actual exhibit, I believed this symbolic gesture offered authority back where it belonged. Other people, white people, could look at it, but surely they knew it wasn’t theirs to taste? Surely they understood the irony; the subtlety’s edible tradition of power, and self ownership? Surely, they knew it was not their’s to make definitive decisions about. It was not theirs to eat.
This was, at last, our subtlety.
Or so I thought. And then I learned what really was going on in Brooklyn.
* * *
A friend told me.
We were discussing the sculpture and she asked me if I had heard about any inappropriate behavior at the exhibit. I told her I had not.
With a heavy heart, she sighed and finally admitted, “Some white people going to this show — they’re just acting crazy.” I cringed immediately knowing what she meant. The horror wouldn’t come from people being disrespectful — but straight up colonial.
The first essay I read on the matter was “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit” by Nicholas Powers. Poor Mr. Powers. He hoped that with the work’s full title, “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,” that people would have some sense of reservation. That they would be considerate of the ongoing historical pain conveyed here. Nope.
Among the antics, Powers states he witnessed a white man folding his arms “gangsta” style as he posed with his son — next to one of the molasses sculptures of a slave boy. Next an elderly white woman took a photo of her daughter flippantly smiling next to said slave boy. Finally Powers describes, “I forced myself to go to the backside of the statue and saw there what I expected to see, white visitors making obscene poses in front of the ass and the vulva of the ‘Subtlety.’ A heavy sigh fell out of me. ‘Don’t they see this is about rape?’ I muttered as another visitor stuck out his tongue.”
Finally such behavior was not deterred by the presence of the We Are Free project. Powers states members of the group handed out stickers, that stated “We are Free” to all audience members in order “to remind white visitors that the descendants of slaves were in the room, present and watching the whites pose in front of their history like tourists.”
I deeply emphasize with Powers' pain. However I cannot agree with his conclusion.
Powers states “Yes, Walker has the freedom to express herself. 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 dynamic of white supremacy, Walker and Creative Time… simply made the Domino Sugar Factory a safe space for it…. sad thing is thousands of visitors are still seeing a sculpture that symbolizes the history of racial violence with no guidelines on how to interpret it.”
Again I understand Powers’ rage. The evident trauma he and others are feeling is justified and mirrored in my own heart. Yet, I cannot concede that this behavior should be policed or erased from the exhibit. Why? Because it is revealing. And I think that is the point. Walker cannot control the structural politics Powers is referencing. In a material strata, any place becomes safe for oppression. Even if the exhibit handed out cue cards, it would not disrupt the caste system. However the exhibit can highlight it’s existence—which is particularly important in a country that loves to claim that it is “post-racial.”
Now it is essential to remember the intent of Walker’s work. Walker has stated, “My work is all about the now. I approach this work the same way a Harlequin Romance novelist might approach it, all the history, the petticoats, it’s all artifice, just a ruse to tantalize the viewer.” Cunningly, Walker deposits what appears to be a relic, and it’s only after you’re engrossed do you realize that the narrative, and the politics, are contemporary.
This is why the Subtlety is so exposed. This is why it is not protected. Powers is right, the work is about rape. The work is about ongoing imposition. It is about the lack of body sovereignty. In a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy the oppressed cannot have full autonomy. The power dynamic will always be askew. Thus self ownership of one’s image, history and narrative can never be secure, they are always at risk of being hijacked, and dishonored.
The lack of body sovereignty the exhibit displays is further depicted in the article Why The Behavior of White People Shouldn’t Be Policed At the Kara Walker “Sugar Baby” Exhibit.
In this particular article, Charing Bell, describes how she and her friends decided to process the molasses children and the Subtlety. These women of color decided to be intimate with their history. They decided to pose affectionately with the work. Finally they decided to make an ironic statement. Bell states, “I suggested that we pay homage to another exploited black woman, Sarah Baartman, and twerk for our own pleasures in front of Mammy Sphinx. ‘It’s a reclamation as much as it is a diss,’ I said reassuringly.” However the rest of her group is hesitant. Charing continues stating, “There was concern about jobs and appearances, but I suspected that underneath it all, there was a fear of what the gawking white folks might say and what they thought. So half of our group decided to split the difference and take a back shot – just like the girls on Instagram, YouTube and in music videos, whose own sugar is often misunderstood, misappropriated and flat-out objectified. It was our way of showing solidarity while drawing connections to the Mammy Sphinx and the other kinds of sugar babies throughout history.”
But this beautiful moment of solidarity is of course interrupted, and imposed upon. Before the girls can even take their own personal photograph, “hordes of peering white eyes” descend and begin photographing the women—of course without their permission. A crossroads is presented. Do they continue? Charring states, “It was disarming… We could choose to scream at them, defend and hide ourselves away from the gaze somewhere in the corner. Or we could smirk and throw up our own figas* to their intrusion. We chose the latter, and my only regret was that we didn’t twerk.” (*A figa symbol is a physical sign of opposition or insult in Portuguese).
Although the article appears to have a triumphant end, one must question why the intrusive white gaze, is more threatening than the prospect of losing one’s job? Or rather do the women sense that the standards and sanctions set by these gazes, can disturb their jobs? Here we get an implicit sense of how much power is tied to whiteness. For the individual gazes themselves would mean nothing, if they were not able to create material consequences.
The intrusions depart from mere disrespect and become colonialism, when they are able to bind and define us. For instance presently we have learned that a society that centers an imperial white gaze can ban our natural hair from our professions, murder our unarmed with impunity, decide when our companionships become gangs, choose without warrant when to search our persons, homes and vehicles, and finally dismiss our eye witness accounts of deaths and abuse, as if they were conjecture and not evidence.
Thus in a failed democracy the unprotected Sphinx is accurate.
The co-option of the subtlety is accurate.
For, as Global Feminist Ethics would state, “ the systematic deprivation of bodily sovereignty defines the oppressed condition (p. 161)”
We are not free.
* * *
So where do we go from here?
We understand that art can be a call for action and we face that the systematic denial of body sovereignty can only be cured by systematic action. We must have civic engagement. We must organize. We must demand legislative measures that dismantle the police state. We must fight for due protection and a living wage in the work force. We must highlight and protest the intentional conditions that keep black civilians in economic, educational and political underclasses. Finally, we must understand that the whole system is intentional and intersectional. We must find our allies. We must connect the global dots.
Recently citizens grappling with militarized occupation in Palestine were giving protesters in Ferguson, Missouri tips on how to handle tear gas.
We must understand that we are not alone.
Finally, when Kara Walker was discussing her initial associations with sugar, and the sugar industry, she concluded with, “Ruins… everything was just in ruins.”
I’m tired of ruins. I know you’re tired of ruins.
Yes, the state is tall and appears indomitable. But like the Sphinx it was made on the backs of our labor. It could not be here without our efforts. It can be broken by our efforts.
Granulated, white sugar lasts indefinitely only if it remains untouched.
Melanie West is a cartoonist and writer in Rochester, New York.