"Commissioned by the downtown public-art fund Creative Time, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby induced, like any Kara Walker work, an equivocal ceremony of looking — who looks, at what, and how. The central sculpture — a Sphinx creature with the kerchiefed head of a mammy figure, her breasts naked, her vulva prominent — stood 35 feet by 75 feet, a chimera of unvarnished American desires, protected by an infantry of black-boy figurines carrying agricultural bounty, built from Walker’s sketches by a team of nearly 20 fabricators, the 3-D sculpting and milling firm Digital Atelier, and Sculpture House Casting. A foam skeleton overlaid with 40 tons of sugar, water, and resin, the Sugar Baby was the largest single piece of public art ever erected in New York City. It was also one of the biggest in another sense: The show attracted 130,000 visitors, briefly lived a convoluted life as a coveted social-media geo-tag, and seemed, given the many pilgrims it enticed, to herald a new future for public art in the city. As Nato Thompson of Creative Time told me, “Kara immediately understood what a different form public art can be.”
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."
- og fra lidt længere nede i artiklen, om kritikken af hendes brug af sorte stereotyper:
"Today, Walker keeps that issue of International Review on her bookshelf, along with another work called Kara Walker—No/Kara Walker—Yes/Kara Walker—?, published in 2009. “What are they debating, really? My right to exist?” she asks. “I was getting a lot of letters and phone calls. People were concerned about me. They were excited to see the work but also concerned about the endemic racism of the gallery system, that I might be swallowed up and spat out by a gallery because of the sensationalistic quality of the work,” Walker says of the mid-1990s. “I created this space where I as the artist was also the Negress who is to some extent living in the master’s house or vying for the master’s attention.”
Walker has played with this provocation — of figuration versus personhood, and the relationship of her own identity to those bodies depicted in her work — ever since. She sometimes refers to herself as a “Negress of noteworthy talent,” a reference to the slave girl-child character Hilton Als once identified as the “saint figure” of her compositions. She looks to the languid narrators of southern novels like Gone With the Wind for the flamboyance and piquancy of her drawings. To Walker, art is description, not advertisement. To those who say she might be politically alienated, or that she doesn’t exhibit much black allegiance, Walker more or less agrees. “I recognize it when I see it in other people, and I recognize it in myself. Even my dealer [Brent Sikkema] would say, ‘People would reach out to you and you seemed to be someplace else.’ I’m older now, but I really lacked empathy in a way I did not realize. Desensitized. Not fully grasping … the ‘positivity’ of black life and looking more closely at cruel native spaces. But I do that because I’ve lived in that space quite a lot.”
“I’m sure she knows the difference between herself and the Sugar Baby,” says Hannaham. “She knows that her work and persona is a lightning rod for what she calls ‘the pathologies’ that are everywhere in the country. But she also knows that putting a naked representation of a black woman in a public space invites all sorts of projections, bullshit, and reverence. She likes that.”
“Many black artists do prefer to make affirming images,” says historian Nell Irvin Painter, author of (among other things) The History of White People. “But many others want to make whatever images their eyes take them to, whether affirming or not affirming.” The controversy remains a live one. In 2013, Painter and Walker participated in a public dialogue following a controversy at the Newark Public Library. Scott London had sent Walker’s graphite drawing the moral arc of history ideally bends toward justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos to the library on loan. Its loquacious, literary titling belies the overtness of its chaos: floating figures engaged in states of amoral hygiene. A figure of President Obama wags a condemning hand over a podium, a naked black man clutches a fleeing figure, and the head of a black woman is forced into a white man’s crotch. Employees at the library decided to cover the painting with a sheet.
“It’s funny, there’s a way in which the accusation of stereotype reveals more of how their eyes work versus how my work works,” Walker says. “I wouldn’t make art if it were purely an ego-driven exercise.” Then, calmly, she moves in another rhetorical direction. “If the work is reprehensible, that work is also me, coming from a reprehensible part of me. I’m not going to stop doing it because what else could I do?""
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