Seeing Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby”

It’s Saturday. I’m in New York and I wake up feeling refreshed and excited about going to see some art. My boyfriend, brother, his fiancée B and I head out to get some breakfast. The weather is perfect, warm with little to no humidity. The sky is blue with pulled cotton ball clouds. We strike out for Williamsburg to go see the Kara Walker exhibit at the now defunct Domino Sugar Factory. We hop in a cab and arrive to see a long line next to plywood walls with those amusement park, 20 minutes from here, markers. My brother and my b.f. are not happy with the line and it looks like they’re regretting coming with us. Meanwhile B and I are getting pumped, enjoying the festive spirit on line: conversations about what people have heard about the exhibit, vendors hawking Italian ices and security telling us to “Form a line!” We are asked to sign a waiver, one of those ‘if a chunk of the ceiling falls and cracks your skull you can’t sue’ agreements. I can’t recall signing a waiver for art before so it better be worth it. Despite being at the end of a line down the block, we get into the exhibit in about 20 minutes and cross over a yard of pebbly rock speckled with tufts of sparse grass. As we cross the industrial courtyard we’re met with the sign: “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. “ B and I exchange glances, we know we’re in for something. My b.f. strides forward. My brother raises his camera and takes a picture.



 I approach the darkness outlined by the warehouse door. What am I going to see? I cross the threshold. The ceiling above opens up; the air is cool. My nostrils flare with the scent of centuries old sugar or what I think centuries old sugar smells like. There are hints of burnt sugar without the acrid flare of a fresh sugar burn. I want to run my fingertips along the blackened walls and see if the petrified sugar granules feel like fine braille. I don’t want to cause any static with the attendants so I keep my hands to myself. Furtively I glance to my right and see the sphinx, her majestic head sunlit from above. I can’t go to her yet.  Instead I focus on a caramelized figure in front of me; a decomposing little boy in a loincloth hoisting sugar cane. He’s made of entirely of sugar. His shoulders are sticky and mottled with humidity-sprung brown sugar clumps. My gut tightens. I didn’t hear about these sugar babies prior to my visit. I’d been trying to prepare for the majesty of the great sphinx so was blown when I ran into my first sugar baby. I stood with him. Tears prickled my eyes. What the fuck!?! Through a blur of tears that sit poised on my eye, the enormity of what happened here rushes in: child labor, sweat, intolerable heat, and the sickening scent of sugar permeating every pore. This figure told a story I couldn’t ignore. So I just stood there, planted. I don’t know how long I stayed with him but it was longer than the rest of the babies posted here and there throughout the warehouse.


 Finally I stood in front of HER. After the unexpected emotional reaction to the little boy I was mildly surprised to not be as overwhelmed by her scale. I looked up at her, examining her scarf, eyes, lips-is she smiling, breasts, the pile of sugar under her breasts, and fists. I stand there in the same shaft of light that exposes all of her granulated sparkle.



I tentatively walk to her side to get a sense of scale. I round the back and gasp, she’s sitting on her feet and she is anatomically correct.  I avert my eyes for fear of looking too interested and wonder at my reaction. I don’t take pictures out of respect, but respect for whom, the statue? I fight my instinct of discomfort and wonder at the artist’s choice to add these details. Is it a comment on the sexualization of black women? Am I putting too much on it? I don’t think so. I wish the artist were here so I could ask. I’m appalled and judgmental when a family with small children clusters together at her rear and snap a picture.

I make my way to her other side. How are people who didn’t go going to understand the scale of this thing? “Let me take a picture of you next to her,” I tell my brother. He takes a picture of me too, I’m in shadow but you can see my silhouette. I look like her! I study the picture intently.


I stare across her back imagining the actual labor of putting her together, the crystallized sugar layers. I feel a magnetic pull; I want to touch her but it’s forbidden. I want in the artist’s head. I want Kara Walker to tell me how she came up with this concept. Describe what she felt when she finally landed on an idea. Tell me if she had help with the mathematical logistics of building this magnificent installation. I want to ask if she felt overwhelmed at the beginning of the build and elated at the completion.  I want to know if her heart will bruise when her sphinx is dismantled. I want her all to myself so I can interview her, one artist to another and ask about her process. But she’s not here this Saturday and even if she was I’d probably only eke out a few words of blushing praise and scuttle away.

 Instead we all merge from our four corners and decide it’s time to go. I take a last glance as I walk out of the building toward the light; I look back hoping to commit that fragile last image to memory. Once outside I cop a poster and crunch across the gravel to sit along the East River and look back at the factory. I study the imposing mass of the building and know its secret SHE’s inside. Without the sun as her spotlight what does it feel like to be with her and the sugar babies under a velvety black sky studded with stars? Reluctantly we take our leave, cutting through the beginnings of a block party. We cross under the Williamsburg Bridge and head to the bus stop.

If you’re in NYC, tomorrow July 6th is your last opportunity to see this amazing exhibit before it’s dismantled. Hours are 11am-7pm.

Check out Creative Time’s  video about the installation of Kara Walker’s exhibit, “A Subtlety”


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