In real life, Kara Walker is actually a bit reserved.
Yes, that may be hard to believe. After all, this is the woman behind a body of work so provocative it borders on aggressive and so rooted in darkness that few know how to make light of it. But it’s true; Kara Walker, she of the grotesque silhouettes, is reserved in person. On a dreary Thursday in May, she fidgets in a pale blue dress covered by a jacket with a striking image of a sarcophagus on it, and she’s not making much eye contact when she speaks to us, the press, at a preview of her newest exhibit, 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.
As with all of Walker’s work, it’s a lot to swallow.
“I don’t know if I can say as much as she’s saying in form,” Walker says carefully, turning on a pair high top sneakers. “You get two different reads in front and back and you can’t actually take them all in at once. Somehow, it’s too much at once.”
Walker is referring to her soon-to-be iconic statue, a 75-foot-long mammy figure in the form of a sphinx covered head-to-toe in sugar. She appears to you both in parts—a broad nose, thick, full lips (in front and in back), pendulous, child-nurturing breasts, arms crooked at the elbow to either side–and as a magnificent whole. Below her marches a small contingent of figurines, each a bobble headed black boy bearing a basket in his arms or a stalk of fruit over his shoulder, every one of them smiling. Some of those baskets hold the gem-like fragments of failed figurines broken while the exhibit was being constructed. Walker calls it “poetic.” The massive sphinx frowns disapprovingly behind her.
“I did kind of feel like it was my obligation being given the opportunity to work in this space to bring as much as possible into it,” says Walker as a pigeon flaps overhead, its wingstrokes echoing loudly in the cavernous 90,000-square-foot space. “It had to satisfy my own demands, but [also] the demands of history and time and the present and the future and people who would talk about this later when there used to be this building and this thing happened in it.”
“The people who will talk about this later when there used to be this building” should be us, the people who live in Brooklyn. This show may be universally important, but its venue, the Domino Sugar Refinery, is purely ours. Only we fully understand its importance as a symbol in the fight to preserve the integrity of Brooklyn from incoming real estate developers, and Kara Walker’s exhibit will play no small part in making our vision for the future somehow grander than we could ever have imagined.
Nothing anyone says can possibly compare with the experience of actually being inside one of Brooklyn’s most iconic and controversial “ruins.” No one can describe the desire to race from end to battered end of the burned out refinery, trailing your hand along its sooty, black walls or how you must choke down that desire because it feels as if you’re in a cathedral of industry. No one can recreate in words the disgusting yet intoxicating scent of molasses that, according to Walker, permeated the room even before she drizzled syrup on every single figurine, sphinx included. And no one can explain just how much the refinery’s fallen apart over the last ten years while somehow managing to stand tall.
“It had to have the “too much” and it also had to be easy to see,” Walker says in her final remarks on the show, obviously relieved that this to-do is almost over with. “Sweet on the eyes–or something.”
The exhibit’s curator offers her up for a few questions from the press, an idea she physically recoils at, but out of pity or kindness for Walker, only one question is asked and then it’s all over.
We stroll back through the factory, nodding at the bobble headed boys one more time, and then duck outside. The transition from dark to light is startling. Up ahead, Kara Walker quietly slips out of a side door, her hands shoved into the pockets of her oversized jacket. She turns, smiles at us and hauls ass up the sidewalk without once looking back.
A Subtlety will be on public display at the Domino Sugar Factory (S. 1st St. and Kent Ave.) through Sunday, July 6. Exhibit hours are Fridays (4 p.m. – 8 p.m.) and Saturdays & Sundays (12 p.m. – 6 p.m.). Visit Creative Time online for more information.
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