A Sugar Baby in Brooklyn Segues to Daumier in Santa Barbara
WRITTEN BY Kitty Garner
She is enormous, sugar-coated, sexually super-charged and absurdly enigmatic. The first foray into sculpture by artist Kara Walker, a massive sphinx-cum-mammy coated in 35 tons of sugar which has lorded over the Brooklyn waterfront in the Domino Sugar Refinery this summer, appears to be one massive looming paradox. Even the title of the work, A Subtlety, is a blatant, baffling contradiction, for the work is anything but. The title is also a reference to confections presented at medieval feasts. “Subtleties” were sculpted to celebrate a certain dignitary or event, or even to convey a nuanced political message, and would have been considered the ultimate gastronomic luxury due to sugar’s rarity, perhaps the medieval equivalent of white truffles from Alba. The subtitle, “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,” provides a few more clues to the riddle embodied by the Sugar Baby, but simultaneously sweeps in additional inscrutable implications. The Sugar Baby is a veritable matryoshka doll of themes, stereotypes and questions.
In this video, Art21 takes an in-depth look at the creation of Kara Walker’s monumental public project, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014), at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn.
Walker was a provocative artistic wunderkind, winning the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award at the age of 24 with her breakout work Gone. Subsequently major museums across the globe were clamoring to obtain her signature panoramic installations of the antebellum South which look charming, even saccharine, upon first glance, yet turn monstrous upon further viewing. The works are vignettes of the slave master and the female slave, and acts of violence and rape abound. Presented as silhouettes in black and white, it is as if these works cast some Rorschachian spell, forcing one to flip back and forth between the past and the present, of what one wants to see and what one is actually seeing.
The theme of Walker’s career has been exploring the manner in which African-American women have been exploited, manipulated, mutilated and objectified, and the Sugar Baby certainly appears to be on theme, but there is a distinct shift here which is unrelated to the change in medium. The work does explore two stereotypes which have perpetually plagued black women and which Walker has addressed ad nauseum in her prior works: the negress of the slave-owning South and the hyper-sexualized black female. The head of the Sugar Baby explores the former, with the kerchief suggesting the mammy “house-girl” who cared for the white children and looked after the needs and whims of her mistress. The body of the Sugar Baby addresses the latter, with enormous breasts, protruding buttocks and a quite visible vulva. However, while Walker’s prior works cast the negress as a helpless victim, the Sugar Baby evokes power and control. The positioning of her left hand seems to connote assertive power as well, as she seems to be giving us the finger.
Still, once you make this leap and posit that the Sugar Baby signifies female black power, questions lurch in and the notion becomes problematic. Why is the Sugar Baby white when she certainly should be brown, the color not only of African skin but also of raw sugar? And although she seems to have eyes, there are no pupils. Is this the result of some violence waged against her? And why would she retain the kerchief unless it was being worn sardonically, as a paradoxical symbol of power? The Sugar Baby is a caricature of a mammy and a sex object—how do these absurd characterizations, even in the form of a sphinx, elicit power? Walker revels in our confusion and in the fact that this immersive work makes us feel uncomfortable on many levels. Throughout her career she has made a practice of posing troubling, unresolvable questions in her work by appropriating racist imagery in an open-ended fashion. The Sugar Baby is no exception. Walker commented, “If I have done my job well, she gains her power by upsetting expectations, one after the other.”
The work is further complicated by references to the sugar trade inherent in the composition of the work and its venue, for in the nineteenth century this very refinery produced over half of the processed sugar in the United States. The history of the sugar trade is fraught with issues of colonialism, slavery, industrialization and labor abuse. One also must consider the insidious role sugar has played in creating a sort of modern day plague, diabetes, which has been particularly devastating to the African-American community. And then there is the fact that the factory is being demolished to make way for upscale condominiums, leading us to consider the ramifications of gentrification.
Upon further contemplation of the Sugar Baby and Walker’s use of her art to relay messages of social activism, however obtuse, I thought, oddly enough, of Honore Daumier, the nineteenth century French artist who used caricature, painting and sculpture to skewer nefarious public figures and raise pressing social issues. Daumier lived in an era of unprecedented unrest and upheaval. France spiraled through five governments after the French Revolution of 1789, just as industrialization was gaining traction and creating a new under-class of impoverished urban workers who had no representation politically. This milieu provided endless fodder for Daumier’s caustic social commentary. As a caricature artist Daumier laid bare the cruelty, pretension and folly of nineteenth century French society in the form of physical absurdity, and Walker is certainly working the same trope with her sculptural caricature.
However, while Walker would expect art to be leveraged as a tool of social activism, this was the exception not the rule in Daumier’s day. The commissioned nature of art in his time forced artists to flatter rather than disparage. It was Daumier’s facility with lithography and his subsequent role as a lampooning caricaturist at La Caricature and Le Charivari that provided him with a platform to begin critiquing contemporary Parisian culture. He was imprisoned for six months for the publication of Gargantua, a biting portrayal of Emperor Louis-Philippe, replete with humorous scatological imagery.
After his release from prison, Daumier began to focus on painting, which had always been his medium of choice but not one that could afford him livelihood. His paintings have been compared to the “black paintings” of Goya and to the straightforward realism of Courbet. His loose brush stroke and use of light have led many scholars to believe that he helped pave the way for Impressionism, and the subjective nature of his work is said to have influenced the Expressionists.
The Third Class Carriage, although unfinished, is Daumier’s most renowned painting, and depicts a working class family traveling by train. It is no surprise that Daumier chose the locomotive as the method of transportation in the painting, for the train was a symbol of modernity and represented the profound societal shifts caused by industrialization. The painting is a study in the plight of the working class, and the drab palette emphasizes their dire circumstance. We see a mother nursing her baby, a weary grandmother with sunken eyes and a boy fast asleep, and we query where the father might be. As Daumier surely intended, the painting elicits compassion. The structure of the work underscores the isolation of the group and of the working class as a whole from the privileges and comforts enjoyed by the reigning classes. The title itself emphasizes the stratification of society, and we see how cramped, crowded and uncomfortable it is to be in third class.
Although the Sugar Baby is no longer on view, there is a particularly wonderful show on Daumier at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. “Daumier’s Salon: A Human Comedy” explores Daumier’s work through the lens of the Parisian art scene, of which Daumier was both a critic and a participant. Through the recent gift of benefactor Robert M. Light of more than 1,500 Daumier lithographs, the SBMA now boasts a stellar collection of this celebrated master. The works of both Daumier and Walker reveal the power of art as a tool of social activism. Their art begs us to reject our role as benign observer and instead actively examine our own perspectives and prejudices as we consider the plight of “the other.”
Daumier’s Salon: A Human Comedy can be viewed at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art now through October 5, 2014.