From her all-enveloping cycloramas and iconic wall-mounted silhouettes to her searing films, drawings, and prints, Kara Walker’s work has remained fearlessly stalwart in its condemnation of social and racial injustice. With her most recent project, executed in collaboration with Creative Time, Walker shifts her focus from the cotton plantation of America’s antebellum South to its sickly sweet cousin: the sugar trade. At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: 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 opens to the public on May 10th, and, as its title suggests, avows to be anything but ordinary. Earlier this month, Walker took the time out of her schedule to speak with Rail Managing Art Editor Kara Rooney about her hopes for the installation as well as its complex socio-political implications.
Kara Rooney (Rail): The executionary details of this project were largely developed in secret, so that very few of us in the press are aware of what the final iteration will look like. Can you describe what viewers will encounter when they finally walk into the space on May 10th?
Kara Walker: I hate talking about it. The great thing about having a secret is that it just stays a secret.
Rail: In that case, let’s start with narrative, since that’s historically played such a significant role in your work. How did the story of the sugar trade influence your decisions on both a formal and intellectual level for this project?
Walker: It started with thinking about the space. I was approached by Creative Time a while back, maybe a year ago, about working with the Domino Sugar plant. One of the selling points for me was the plant itself, along with this amazing history of sugar and its attendant legacies of slavery. There are decades of molasses that cover the entire space; it’s coated—it’s an amazing relic or repository vessel that contains all of these histories, and so the venue is actually doing a good portion of the work. I began to think about how to arrive at a piece, given the work that I’ve done in the past, which has been primarily two-dimensional, and even with film and video thrown in, is large, but not this large. So I started with a lot of sketches; each sketch went from very minimal gestures to this maximal output with all kinds of moving parts. It came to embody something I would never want to see, something that was about slavery and industry and sugar and fat and wastelessness. It was a kind of finger-wagging gloom-and-doom kind of sketch that embodied all of the themes about industrialization that the space contains: post-industrial America, the grandiose gesture of the industrialists, and sugar as the first kind of agro-business.
For example, you can’t get sugar without heavy-duty processing; you don’t get refined sugar, you get other things. This desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming an American were fascinating to me. Sugar is loaded with meaning, with stories about meaning.
Rail: What were some of your resources in looking into the history of the sugar trade and Domino’s role in particular?
Walker: There is a passage in a book by Sidney Mintz called Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), where the author talks about the Middle Ages in Europe and England and how sugar there was a highly prized, expensive commodity.
Rail: It was for the aristocracy.
Walker: Yes. Sugar was rare, even considered medicinal. It was like gold, extremely precious. At a certain point coming from the East in the 11th century, there began an enormous effort, at the bequest of the sultans, to make these strange, grandiose marzipan structures. Once they were fashioned, they would present and give them to the poor on feast days. This tradition made its way to Northern Europe where the royal chefs began making similar sugar sculptures. The thing that really struck me about these sugar sculptures was what they were called—subtleties—there it is. [Laughs]. They were intended to represent the power of the king, not just in their being made of this prized commodity, but also in their representation of the signing of a treaty, or the hunt. So you had these sugar sculptures of the deer and the king, and there would be some kind of oratory or maybe a little poem that would be said, and then everybody would eat them. They would be presented between meals as this beautiful, edible trophy. It was after reading this that I realized I had to make a sugar sculpture and a large one. So that answers the first part of your question: the sugar sculpture. She is basically a New World sphinx. A New World thinking of the sugar plantations, the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that sort of Rolling Stones-y brown sugar dovetailing of sex and slavery as it reaches the American imagination. read more…
words: kara rooney