Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Lives On
Words: mater mea
Artistic choice and audience reaction are documented in Walker’s follow-up to her renowned installation.
This past spring artist Kara Walker debuted A Subtlety, her latest large-scale exhibition, at the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, New York. Now Walker has expanded on the display with Afterword, an installation designed to show the development of—and the reaction to—the original exhibit.
A Subtlety, which drew over 130,000 visitors between May and July, depicted an approximately 80’ x 40’ nude African-American female figure in a sphinx pose, made from polystyrene and sugar. Surrounding the sphinx were child-sized “attendant” figurines of hardened boiled sugar. Described in the work’s full title as “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,” A Subtlety was equal parts grand spectacle and resolute look at one of America’s darkest sins: slavery.
With Afterword, Walker offers a behind-the-scenes peek at the artist’s first sculpture. (Walker is best known for her paper cutouts that cast shadows of graphic antebellum South tableaux.) The three-part exhibit consists of Walker’s notes and sketches made prior to and during A Subtlety’s run, the severed left fist of the sugar sphinx (making the sexually-evocative figa gesture), and two short films: Rhapsody, which shows the sphinx being dismantled after the exhibit ended, and An Audience, a 27-minute long collection of clips filmed in the final hour before A Subtlety’s closing.
An Audience, perhaps more than any other part of Afterword, captures the dichotomy present in A Subtlety. In just the film’s five-minute trailer, hundreds of viewers can be seen absorbing the powerful imagery in their own ways—many take pictures with the sugar sphinx, others touch it. Children examine the installation with curiosity, but still grasp the import of the pieces. One toddler holds liquid sugar from a melted attendant in his hands. Like all great art, A Subtlety was both artist’s vision and audience’s interpretation, and Afterword proves it.
Afterword runs at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. through January 17.