Kara Walker's Sugar Sphinx: public arts can make localities powerful
Fascinating profile of the US artist Kara Walker, whose massive 2014 Sugar Sphinx sculpture in an old sugar warehouse in Williamsberg, New York redefined what public art would be, in the era of Black Lives Matter. Three years on, Walker is planning her next move.
Here's an excerpt:
The Sphinx was not meant to be a crowd-pleaser; it was too challenging for that, with compressed politics that were the result of what Walker calls her “magical thinking.” The Sugar Baby’s extended title referred to the workers who had been degraded, maimed, underpaid, and killed in factories like this one: “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.”
The sculpture was a feat of reengineering, its materials not only sugar but also the events running through it: the brutal repurposing of black human life for the rank, commercial lusts of white supremacy; the emphasis on black female biological potential over black female creativity; both the bygone and contemporary processes of gentrification that threaten to wipe all indications of these dark and abiding practices from the structures in which they occurred.
The developer Two Trees, which underwrote much of A Subtlety, broke ground on its Domino project not long after, turning the site into new apartments, and the Sugar Baby was conceived to be wiped away, too — to be almost completely destroyed following its single showing. But while it was up, Walker wanted to be sure to scrutinize how it was received, and sent a camera crew to film the crowds as they preened, laughed, and selfied around her — producing a kind of surveillance footage. Then she screened the result at Sikkema Jenkins, the gallery that has represented her since 1995.
It’s been nearly three years since the Sphinx, and Walker has spent the time interrogating what it means to make monumental and political art — representational or abstract — on the terrain, sites, and buildings in which the lives of black people have been compromised in some way. That is, how to exhume the traumas and delights of an environment rather than fabricating scenes out of black paper — and how to guide the problem of how people look. “I am still wrestling with my relationship to what my art might do in the public space,” she says. “How I can control it.”
Public art can bring energy, enlightenment and collective purpose to a locality. We want to see more of this!