The Subtlety of Kara Walker’s Race and Gender Art is Lost on Some

3 years ago

Earlier this month, artist Kara Walker unveiled her sphinx-like statue “A Subtlety” in Brooklyn. With its oversized vulva made of sugar, it’s not surprising that the statute would be controversial, but it is saddening to see why it’s causing controversy.

It’s not that it is simply a vulva: it’s whose it is (or isn’t) and who created it. Kara Walker has already established herself as a controversial artist, whose art such as previous exhibits titled “Why I Like White Boys, an Illustrated Novel by Kara E. Walker Negress” (1999) or “The High and Soft Laughter of the Nigger Wenches At Night” (1995) reflect her unapologetic point of view on the African-American contributions that created this United States.

The point in her latest exhibition, “A Subtlety” (which closed on July 6th) is… well, it is up to the observer as to what it means. A large sphinx-like creature with an exaggerated Aunt Jemima figurine head and a pronounced vulva — if you dare to look at her rear — is resplendent, beautifully crafted, and also to some, vulgar. The hardest thing about “A Subtlety” is how differently we see this figure, depending on our individual perspectives. As part of the We Are Here campaign organized by Sisters Art Salon (SAS), a collective of women of colour and faculty from The New School, 500 supporters signed up to join the throngs of attendees on a hot Sunday afternoon in front of the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district - once a predominately Puerto Rican neighbourhood and now a highly gentrified borough of the city and often the punchline of jokes because of its hipster population. That’s one of the reasons why the organization wanted to volunteer its services to provide what Walker purposefully didn’t at the exhibit - some historical perspective as to what the figures mean.

One of the organizers from Sisters Art Salon walked down the line of waiting visitors - the longest I’ve ever seen to get into an exhibition - and talked to the black men and women in line, explaining the organization and offering them “We Are Here” stickers to attach onto their clothes and explaining the reason why they were there. In addition, the organization provided a space outside of the exit where people could share their thoughts on the exhibit. Because Walker didn’t offer a lot of written explanation about her reasoning behind "A Subtlety” and due to the numerous Instagram photos of previous exhibition visitors making obscene gestures in front of the pronounced genitalia of the 35 by 75-foot sugar statue, it appeared that the general public—more specifically the white general public—didn’t get the seriousness and the emotionality of the exhibit.

The examination of the Caribbean sugar trade—the fact that African slaves were transported to the Islands to work as labourers in which some lost their lives to produce—was completely lost. So SAS decided to offer volunteers who were available to explain the nuances of Walker’s exhibit. Arriving at the Domino Sugar Factory, I felt unprepared, as I hadn’t seen it yet, and what I saw moved me. After I got my sticker, a volunteer went down the line to collect the release forms that she had distributed earlier. A young “hipster” couple asked why there were so many “people of color with stickers” there that day. Let’s just say the volunteer didn’t handle it well, labelling all the “people of color” as ‘activists’ in this cynical tone as though we were protesting something and preparing to raise a ruckus. I was biting my lip to add in my two cents, but I didn’t.

“A Subtlety” is artist Kara Walker’s first foray into sculpture, and while photographs of the Sphinx have been widely featured online, there is nothing like seeing it in person. What disturbed me more were the pint-sized male figures, strategically placed around the warehouse. The smell of the warehouse, sickly sweet and with the combination of the heat and vintage sugar, what should have reminded visitors of a delicious delicacy, ended up being an odour that clogged your pores and suffocated your senses. I felt uncomfortable and ill at ease, and seeing the young black boys, made out of resin and the darkest molasses positioned within the warehouse, some toppled over from the heat and the humidity and oozing amber and crimson molasses, which intermingled with the dirty, sticky floor, resembled blood - not the thin, light stuff that might ooze from a minor scrape, but deep, thick blood from a large vein.

This sight stuck with me and made me think about labor, capital, production, greed... all the things that went into supporting the production of agricultural goods that went on (and still goes on in relation to agricultural labour in certain American states and countries) that strips away the humanity from those who died creating a product they weren’t even allowed to consume. Perhaps the conversation I heard while waiting in line made me feel defensive, but I felt I was even more aware of the other visitors in the warehouse, waiting for someone to say or do something.

Some people seemed more focused on taking pictures; while others took selfies with the front of the Sphinx in the background. Others pondered the figurines, and probably like me, wondered if the ones that had toppled over and were oozing molasses were strategically placed in front of the sunlight-strewn windows to naturally disintegrate. After peering into a basket that one of the figurines embraced, the remnants of one of the expired figurines lay there in shards, including half its face, obviously expressionless, which made it even more morbid. But there were those in which it seemed because of their fascination with their mobile devices and loud conversations about stuff that had nothing to do with the exhibit, to be there just so they could say they saw it, versus, being curious about what the exhibit actually meant.

I had been in the space for approximately 10 minutes when I knew that I wasn’t going to last much longer. The overwhelming feeling of sadness overcame me when I thought about real-life boys, boys that might have been from my blood country of Jamaica. When they lost their usage from heat stroke, disease, starvation or even murder, they were tossed aside like garbage. But I wanted to see the Sphinx up close so I slowly walked around the figure and viewed the backside, observing the pronounced vulva and feeling conflicted as to whether I should take a picture of it. After all, it seemed vulgar and while I wasn’t like some of my fellow guests who were laughing and pointing, capturing it seemed obtrusive. I knew that if I took pictures they were going to be put to good use, so I took a few.

I didn’t witness anyone taking ‘selfies’ of the Sphinx’s behind, as Nicholas Powers, wrote about in his article “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit”. Powers was also there the same day as part of the We Are Here campaign and writes:

The visitors lowered their cameras. Just seconds ago, they had been aiming their lenses at the sculpture of a 40-foot tall, nude black female sphinx. Many posed under its ass; some laughed and pointed at its vulva. As I watched their joking, my thoughts spun and I walked into the crowd, turned to face them and began yelling… I strode to the front, turned around and yelled at the crowd that when they objectify the sculpture’s sexual parts and pose in front of it like tourists they are recreating the very racism the art was supposed to critique. I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes.

Powers later said to Colorlines that his impromptu decision to correct people stemmed from the urge to resist the ‘white gaze’: to demand respect for what stood so prominently before them. “What a lot of people of color in this room are feeling but just haven’t said out loud is that they don’t like how folks pose in front of this statue dedicated to the violence of slavery,” Powers said. “It’s actually a collective feeling.”

Did anyone pick up on why the vulva was so prominent? Exposed? And as mentioned previously, vulgar? Walker could have fashioned a drape of fabric to conceal but there was a reason for her not to. Not vulgar in a porn way, but vulgar as to what the genatalia of a black woman represents to the larger public. To some, it is seen as a means for production. We have the racialized stereotypes as to what the production of black children means: unwanted, uncared-for children who then are dependent on government handouts because of their emotionally and presumably, intellectually ill-equipped mothers.

“A Subtlety” carries the subtitle of the “Marvelous Sugar Baby”. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s writer Noliwe Rooks, that term hearkens back to the history of Saartjie Baartman, the Hottentot Venus whose genitalia was put on display in museums both prior and after her death, reflects “a piece of art that visually represents all of the key stereotypes of black women in which the dominant culture has trafficked for centuries. In seeming response either to critics of the work or to a culture so consistently bent on representing black women thusly, Walker’s sculpture literally gives "the finger" to viewers with one of her giant, catlike, faux paws.” However, the response to black women’s genitalia is interesting in relation to how the sexuality of prominent black women artists are viewed.

For black women, there is the stereotype of the oversexed Jezebel, whose pathology is limited to sexual pleasure and devoid of femininity. The response of predominantly white viewers posing in front of the exposed vulva evoked a sense of silliness and ridicule - many seemed overly excited at the sight of a vagina so exposed. When singer Rihanna showed up in a see-through dress at the CFDA Awards, the response wasn’t as  humourous as prehaps she wanted, as people seemed to be more outraged over the fact that she had a better body than they did. In addition, her ad to promote her own perfume in which none of her genitalia could be seen, still was deemed as inappropriate and the ad restricted in areas in which children could view it.

One of the interesting things about the Sphinx is how it merged the two main beliefs about black women’s sexuality. With its ‘Mammy’ features, the Sphinx suggests the domesticity that coincides with that image - the nurturer, the domesticated human being whose individualism is often rendered invisible outside of providing servitude to others. However, the prominent genitalia belies the invisibility of the Mammy figure and acknowledges that what we think represents domesticity and servitude, has a human, sexual side. It is in your face and cannot be denied - which, in some ways, could serve as a reason why so many people were compelled to make light of the situation - completely unaware of the socio-political ramifications and the generations of hurt and pain that by consuming sugar, the unwillingly participated in. After all, as black people, the ‘making fun’ of anything ‘black’ outside of a black comedic actor, is circumspect.

In addition, there is the contradiction in the way black women’s sexuality is often represented in the media: we are either thought of as us either not being capable of using our genitaila for pleasuable purposes but just as (carelessly) reproductive ones or as enjoying our sexuality too much. For example, Rihanna’s see through dress at the CFDA awards and or Beyonce - who was raked over the coals for the sexual nature of her latest album, Beyonce. Blogger Cate from Batty Mamzelle believes that by comparison, in relation to how singers like Miley Cyrus are considered - which even though she, in particular has been criticized, is seen as an anomaly or somehow a feminist icon rather than a representative of all young white women - white women in general are afforded with more sexual agency than women from other ethnocultural backgrounds.

Through music videos, Singers Miley Cyrus and Lilly Allen have used black women’s bodies to exert their own sexual agency, feeding off the current stereotypes of how the public views the differences between black and white women in the name of sexual desirability. However, there is a sense that the singers (or their team) know that the singers have more social capital than their background singers, which individualizes their decisions and forces the viewer to see them as sexual revolutionaries, versus the racialized stereotypical notions that are monolithically placed on black women, which as mentioned earlier, ranges from the oversexed, distrusted jezebel to the domesticated, neutered domestic.

As Power’s mentions in his article, one of the reasons for the reaction to “A Subtlety” was that there was no written explanation for the exhibit and the volunteers were ill-equipped to properly explain. In some ways, I do not think there should have been one needed, as art is created to be interpreted subjectively, as everyone will react based on their own individual experiences.

On the other hand, something so controversial and so personal needs some clarification in order to avoid the general public from being so callous about something that has deeply affected black Americans. Maybe Walker intended to let the reaction play itself out. After all, this isn’t about the Mammy. The confusion, the hilarity and the callousness says more about our lack of historical knowledge on slavery and indentured labour and our general lack of empathy.

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