Week Seven: Kara Walker’s A Subtlety

This week’s reading kept reminding me of the artist Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” , which is “a 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.” Consisting of a massive, sugar-coated sphinx-like woman and a number of figures of small boys made of molasses holding heavy baskets, the work has provoked much discussion about selfie culture, race, and sexism.

Many art critic’s have praised the work for it’s powerful message which Cait Munro says, “meant to serve as a commentary on the sugar cane trade, and a cultural critique of slavery and perceptions of black women throughout history, the work is part Sphinx, part racist Mammy stereotype, and is coated in sugar. It features exaggerated features including breasts, a bottom, and a vagina. As Walker told artnet News, ‘Nudity is a thing, apparently, that people have a problem with; not slavery, or racism, but female bodies, or bottoms.’” This can be seen from the incredible number of tasteless Instagram photos that can be found under the hashtag #KaraWalkerDomino. Many critics were deeply offended by the inappropriate selfies, and as Yesha Callahan of The Root writes, “History has shown us time and time again how a black woman’s body was (and sometimes still is) objectified. From the days of the slave trade to even having black butts on display in music videos, the black woman’s body seems to easily garner laughs and mockery, even if it’s made out of sugar.” While many people agreed that these Instagram photos could be seen as such, Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post writes, “If we reveal ourselves to be corrupted, immature or unprepared at ‘A Subtlety,’ the exhibit itself reaches back to corrupt us, too. You can get very close, and even touch the statues, but you do so at cost. To look inside a basket, to pose with a small figure or to try to ascertain the outline of an eye or mouth under dripping, molding sugar, you have to step in the zone of the statues’ ruin.” I feel like the discussion surrounding Walker’s work, especially due to it’s popularity on social media, definitely highlights many aspects of this week’s readings in regards to race, and starts a crucial online and offline discussion.

Check here for more interesting reactions to the work:




4 thoughts on “Week Seven: Kara Walker’s A Subtlety

  1. caropark

    Walker’s piece definitely delivers the provocative aspect of art and the public reaction towards the large-scale installation is as equally important as the piece itself. The viewers, inappropriate or not, contribute to the value of this piece and we learn about our culture by observing the way we treat culture. Whether it was intentional of Walker, she manages to expose the sexist and racial ignorance that still exists within our society.

  2. christineholland

    I read a fantastic blog post about this art exhibit a few months ago, and unfortunately I can’t find it now that I want to reference it. From what I can remember, the author, an African American woman with family roots that go back to the time of slavery in this country, revealed the range of emotions that she felt when walking through the exhibit: from awe and wonder at the artwork itself and its message, to tears of anger and frustration upon seeing other (white) ignorant attendants of the exhibit laughing or taking crude selfies with the sugar sphinx. Not only were they completely ignorant to the powerful message this exhibit expresses, but they were perpetuating the issue of marginalization of the black community at the same time.

  3. prisahdev

    I feel like the reactions to this piece itself, shows a lot about the culture and society of today. While some are brought to tears by the piece and others are sexualizing it, it just shows what a wide range of thoughts and views there are.

  4. abwrubel

    Personally, I think selfies can act as a coping mechanism for individuals who are not willing to engage with the physical reality of their experience. I think selfies can be an idiotic gesture that is representative of the individuals inability or unwillingness to properly engage in a critical and analytical dialogue with either a thing or an experience. Escaping, through the act of taking a selfie, to a place of “thoughtlessness” results from a lack of social comfort or confidence. Are selfies indicative of our increasing stupidity as a species.

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