Kara Walker’s Subtlety

In the summer of 2014, Kara Walker’s sphinx posed a riddle about women, sweetness, and power.

Natalie Hopkinson | A Mouth Is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents, and the Art of Resistance | The New Press | February 2016 | 14 minutes (3,721 words)

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Like a web
is spun the pattern
all are involved!
all are consumed!
Martin Carter

Inside the abandoned Domino Sugar Refinery in New York, the first thing that hits you is the smell: over a century’s worth of industrial grime, clinging to black, molasses-coated walls. At first whiff, it is kind of sweet, like stale cake. As you go deeper into the cavernous brick building, it gives way to a sour curdling. As my ten-year-old daughter, Maven, describes it: “It’s like how my cat smells when he throws up.”

Maven, my friend Izetta, and I are among more than a hundred thousand people who make a pilgrimage in the summer of 2014 to pay homage to the “Sugar Sphinx,” the seventy-five-foot-long, forty-foot-high creation of Kara Walker, one of the most important and provocative artists working in the United States. The sculpture is forty tons of sugar molded into a ghostly white apparition, part mammy, part sphinx. The line to see her takes more than an hour to travel and stretches out for four long Brooklyn blocks. I spot the writer Gaiutra Bahadur, whose recent book, Coolie Woman, explores the history of indentured sugar workers in Guyana. Bahadur’s research on sugar plantation life and its bitter aftertaste among Guyanese women speaks forcefully to the exhibit we came to see. I wave Bahadur over to join us in line.

The installation’s title, displayed in bold black type painted along the Domino Sugar factory’s brick façade:

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

The original Domino factory—first built in 1850s Williamsburg— was being torn down, along with the stories of generations of lives that it touched around the world. The factory was just one stop in the sugar industry’s “triangular trade” that created the blueprint for the globalized economy. Investors came from Europe; labor came from Africa; the cane fields were located in points across the Global South. The Domino refinery was the final step before the sugar reached consumers. Raw sugar would arrive at Domino’s forty-thousand-square-foot facility. Through the magic of refinery, pristine white sugar would come out. The profits that followed made sugar a key fuel of Empire.

The title, A Subtlety, is taken straight from history. Centuries ago, “subtleties” referred to elaborate, edible toys made of sugar. These exotic treats and status symbols were first made in the Middle East and popularized among the seventeenth-century European aristocracy. These “subtleties” could be trees, architectural models, or depictions of peasants holding baskets of fruit. There was nothing subtle about them, given what a rare and expensive luxury sugar was at the time. Unveiled at dinner parties, these were ostentatious displays of the host’s clout. The sugar sculptures could also be used to send more subversive messages. “Sly rebukes to heretics and politicians were conveyed in these sugared emblems,” writes Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power.

Kara Walker is a MacArthur genius known for her black-and-white palette and raw, sexual reenactments of American history. The artist seized the occasion of the demolition of the factory as an opportunity to invite the public to consider sugar’s history of power, conquest, luxury, and sex. Walker directed a small army of artisans over several weeks to construct her vision of the Sugar Sphinx. The National Endowment for the Arts, Domino Sugar, and the private gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co. were among the sponsors lined up to support the production. It is the kind of razzle-dazzle spectacle only possible in a country with food to spare.

Admission to the installation is free. We are encouraged to post responses under the #karawalkerdomino hashtag. That made participants an essential part of the artistic performance. We don’t just remember the sexualized horrors of plantation life; we are participants, co-conspirators, and consumers.

Inside the old factory, we follow a trail of “sugar babies,” life-size statues of brown boys rendered in brown sugar, shirtless and covered in loincloths, carrying baskets, also created by Walker. They are arranged as though cutting a path in the fields on the way to their mother. We snap a photo of my friend Izetta, who is less than five feet tall, head-to-head with a sugar baby. One sugar baby’s basket is tossed over his shoulder. Another balances his basket on his back. Their smiles aim to please.

We don’t just remember the sexualized horrors of plantation life; we are participants, co-conspirators, and consumers.

Soon, though, we see that New York City’s July heat has brutalized some of the sugar babies. One has collapsed in a puddle of black syrup. His creepy light smile is perfectly preserved, as his body parts lie violently askew. It looks like a crime scene. We see another fallen sugar baby: a massacre. My daughter Maven snaps more photos with her tablet.

Then we reach the Sugar Sphinx herself. As per all monuments, she commands authority through sheer scale. Crouching at forty feet tall, her firm breasts and large white areolas stand at attention. She has the same African nose and imperious cheekbones of her creator, Walker. Wide eyes stare off into the distance, blank as the Egyptian. Her lips met into two thick bows. Her expansive nose tilts upward. Nostrils flare with delicious impertinence.

A wide handkerchief covers her head and knots above her left eye, a crown. Leaning regally on front paws, her countenance is that of the imperial lioness yawning at her place atop the food chain. Bow down, bitches.

Kara Walker's Sugar Sculpture In Williamsburg, Brooklyn

(Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

People scope out places to take selfies all around her meaty limbs, carved in the fertile curves of a hip-hop video vixen. All around us, cell phone cameras pop off everywhere. The crowd forms several small bottlenecks at the back, where her feet are tucked beneath a rear end arched impossibly high. When we do arrive at this final destination, everyone is caught off guard by the sculpture’s level of detail; it is easily the largest vagina any of us have ever seen. A black woman wearing sunglasses, a curly weave, and a long- sleeved body-hugging dress works on a pose for her #karawalkerdomino response. A thirtyish dreadlocked black man in a red shirt stands ready with an iPhone and telephoto camera to snap the woman, who faces us with her back to the Sugar Sphinx, and raises clasped hands up over her head. When the model’s index finger stops bull’s-eye on the Sugar Sphinx’s long, meaty labia, the photographer gestures for her to freeze.

He gets off several snaps of her manually penetrating the Sugar Sphinx with her index fingers. He’s just getting warm when an exhibit volunteer, a twentyish white woman wearing a CreativeTime T-shirt, intervenes. She exchanges a few words with the model I could not hear, and the photo shoot is over.

I ask the model what happened. “She said that’s not allowed,” she tells me, gesturing toward the sweet pussy behind her. “I mean, what else were we supposed . . . ” The dreadlocked director gives a smirk. “I guess it’s . . . un-American . . . or something,” he shrugs.

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We have come to expect bizarre reactions from sugar. It is sensory and symbolic overload. Refined sugar was first marketed as a drug. Processed and presented as a gift, it expresses love and promises carnal pleasure. The history and ongoing agony caused by sugar are mostly hidden from public view. Its sexual brutality is shrouded by amnesia and silence. Much like the twenty-first-century costs paid for smartphones, cheap clothes, and disposable trinkets, it’s out of sight, out of mind. For those of us with roots in the Caribbean, our destinies were shaped by the demands of sugar and plantation life, and the historic moment in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when they became engines for Western empires. Our domestic lives are still being shaped by the culture of domination that took root in those fields.

“The slave trade, sugar’s sickening by-product, would eventually claim its place alongside the Gulag, the killing fields and the concentration camps as one of the greatest atrocities in human history,” Andrea Stuart explains in Sugar in the Blood. The “triangular trade” system between the sugar estates in the Global South acted as a buffer between European and American consumers and the brutalities that produced them.

European powers were not totally ignorant of the moral hazards involved. Speaking in 1563, Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I warned that “if any Africans were carried away without his free consent it would be detestable and call down the vengeance of Heaven upon the undertaking.” But as Stuart writes, sugar profits helped the English forget, and ultimately led them to become the “greatest slaving nation in the world.” Slavery drove down prices and expanded access beyond the elite with the leisure and wealth to amuse themselves with “subtleties.”

Writing more than two hundred fifty years ago, the French novelist Voltaire noted the gap between Western material comforts and the price paid for them in his darkly satirical travelogue Candide. The protagonist meets a Guinean-born enslaved man in Suriname (Dutch Guiana) who is missing an arm and a leg. The worker explains that he lost an arm in the sugar mills; when he attempted to run away, his Dutch master cut off a leg. “This is the cost of the sugar you eat in Europe,” the enslaved man explains.

As sugar became a mass product, it became a dietary staple in Europe. Like tea, “sugar came to define the British character,” Mintz notes. As the masses became addicted to sugar, profits exploded. Sugar generated piles of cash for the European and American investors. Slave labor is what made this transformation from a precious luxury to a mass product possible.

Large Scale Sugar-Coated Sculpture Displayed In Brooklyn's Former Domino Sugar Refinery

(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

The history of Haiti, the only country poorer than Guyana in the Americas, is also a story of sugar. At the time Haiti liberated itself in 1804, it was the French Empire’s top sugar producer. It seems the global economic powers have not known what to do with these former sugar colonies outside this paradigm of domination and exploitation. Many of the atrocities that followed Haiti’s liberation were bald attempts to dispose of these former workers and their descendants, now considered superfluous. In 1937, Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo (also known as “El Jefe”) ordered the murder of tens of thousands of migrant Haitian sugar workers. Edwidge Danticat fictionalizes this massacre in her dazzling 1998 novel The Farming of Bones. Through exhaustive historical footnotes Junot Díaz tells the story of this massacre, which cursed successive generations of Dominicans, in his masterful The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Our domestic lives are still being shaped by the culture of domination that took root in those fields.

Even less visible still are the narratives that spring forth further down the Atlantic. These true tales strike at the deeply gendered nature of plantation exploitation that Walker’s installation so vividly brought into focus. On sugar plantations, African enslaved women were always greatly outnumbered by men of all races. Their sexual attention was in great demand, as black women greatly outnumbered white women as well. As many of the colonies were being established, ratios of 100 men to 1 woman were not uncommon. The lack of available female partners left these societies in a “feral state” leading to bestiality and other debasement, Stuart notes. Worker living quarters allowed no sexual boundaries within families forced to share cramped spaces. On plantations in the American South and the West Indies, it was common for white men to sexually brutalize black women. Many American plantations were often owner-occupied and the owners lived among a society of other whites, where cultural norms encouraged them to be discreet in their sexual relations with enslaved women. In the West Indies, where more of the planters were absentee owners, a more freewheeling sexual culture took hold. It was common for white men and overseers left to manage the plantations to sexually brutalize enslaved women, and few bothered to hide it. “White men extended their dominion over Negroes to their bed, where the sex act itself served as a ritualistic reenactment of the daily pattern of social dominance,” as one scholar noted. The emerging mulatto class in both the American South and the West Indies visually attests to this norm. My own origins may be traced to such liaisons. At the time of emancipation, one British Guiana owner named John Hopkinson had willed his estate, including the £36,270 reparation payment approved by the British Parliament for 713 slaves, to his nine children he fathered with two mulatto sisters.

Enslaved black women were expected to work the fields as a man, take floggings as a man, and make babies like a woman—often at the same time. Under Dutch rule in the Berbice colony in present-day Guyana, plantation owners clung fiercely to their independence and rejected any attempt to protect the welfare of slaves. Many Caribbean planters eventually acquiesced to policies regulating the number of lashes allowed as punishments. Some historic accounts nonetheless have Guyanese women and a girl as young as seven years old taking hundreds of lashings during a single punishment.

British planters took control of the plantations in Guyana, with many switching from cotton and tobacco to sugar to ride the boom. One planter lamented his limited choices in trying to discipline women: “It became clear that planters, should they be deprived of the whip over women, felt they had not alternative to solitary confinement.”

Gendered oppression did not stop in the fields. In the frenzy over getting a piece of the £20 million bailout to slave owners, the widow of Rev. Simon Little, stationed in Jamaica, pled for higher payout on those grounds. The widow had been living in England off the proceeds from fourteen urban slaves she owned in Jamaica. Mrs. Little feared they would not fetch top dollar from Parliament because “out of the number, 10 were females, but from that circumstance, they have more than doubled their original number, and of course doubled my income. I speak strongly on this subject as my existence depends on the rent of these few negroes and what am I to do when seven-eights of my income are taken away?”

Enslaved women were often prostituted to raise more money for plantation owners and overseers. Their poor health led to low fertility levels, and many enslaved women also sought to get some control of their bodies through abortion. The few white women in residence on the colony were often just as brutal toward enslaved workers. However, rape of white women was also a tool of revenge by black men.

A narrative of gender domination runs through one of the most triumphant plots in Guyana history: On February 23, 1763, an Akan enslaved man named Cuffy led five thousand in a revolt against his Dutch slave masters on a sugar plantation. This date is commemorated during Guyana’s annual Mashramani festivities that take place on February 23, and the fifteen-foot-tall bronze Cuffy monument by the sculptor Philip Moore is one of Guyana’s most distinctive landmarks. It was the most successful uprising in the Americas until the Haitian revolution of 1804. Cuffy ruled as governor of Berbice for nearly a year before a Dutch naval fleet was deployed from the Netherlands to regain control of the colony.

Large Scale Sugar-Coated Sculpture Displayed In Brooklyn's Former Domino Sugar Refinery

(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

One of the first things that Cuffy did after seizing command of a plantation in Berbice was to take the white plantation mistress as his “wife.” Cuffy also reenslaved many formerly enslaved African women to work in the sugar plantations during his brief reign. This notion of enslaved men recapturing the manhood deprived them on sugar plantations by conquering white women sexually also shows up in Guyanese fine art. Before the painter Aubrey Williams, a founder of the Caribbean Arts Movement, left to make his career in London, he created the 1960 Revolt, which was banned from being exhibited during colonial times, but is now part of the permanent collection in Guyana’s Castellani House. In the painting commemorating the 1763 uprising, we see the back view of a shirtless enslaved man. His shackles have been broken. His right arm is raised high with a cutlass (a machete). Scars from lashes lace his back. He faces a white person whose face and hands have been hacked off, as well as a bare-breasted white woman who’s just been raped.

In the early 1960s, Janet Jagan, the white, American-born wife of the People’s Progressive Party co-founder Dr. Cheddi Jagan who would eventually succeed him as president, argued for the right to exhibit the painting. Jagan later made sure the painting was included in the national collection at Castellani House, according to the painter Bernadette Persaud, who served with Jagan on the board of Castellani House. “Why can’t Aubrey show the brutality of slavery?” asks Persaud. “Someone has to articulate it. Otherwise you will only get a superficial view of this country. Our parents never talked about what happened at the sugar estates. The women who were trapped and how they survived.”

The more successful revolt in Haiti, in 1804, inspired fear of more uprisings in the Americas. In 1807 most European nations banned transport of slaves across the oceans. For enslaved women, this only made heavier their “dual burdens of production and reproduction.” It fell to enslaved women to continue laboring as a cog in the machinery of sugar production, but now they were also expected to be the machine producing more cogs. Many enslaved women were desperate. Too sick to work, many female slaves committed suicide, poisoned their owners, or ran away, Woolford notes.

Walker’s installation examined a collective history that remains mostly private: scenes taking place behind closed doors on far-off plantations and in kitchens and sleeping quarters.

Well before the last sugar plantations ended slavery in Brazil in 1888, sugar planters discovered a new way to replenish the pool of cheap labor: slaves were replaced with large numbers of indentured workers. By the time the Domino Sugar factory was opened, hundreds of thousands of these workers were being sent to sugarcane fields—a lion’s share came from India and were shipped directly to Guyana. The five-year contracts were supposed to be more humane and better regulated.

They were, but barely. Bahadur’s Coolie Woman: An Odyssey of Indenture is a grand telling of the lives of women and the toxic gender dynamics of sugar plantation life and its echoes in modern-day Guyana. There were too many men shipped to the plantations and not enough women, continuing to inflame this struggle over access to women. Indentured women were vulnerable to both jealous Indian partners and men of other races who were sexually interested. This gender imbalance also gave women sexual leverage. They could take new partners, and often did, as Bahadur notes.

Alcohol abuse and rum-shop culture are also part of this legacy. When they arrived from India, ganja, or marijuana, was the preferred medicine of solace for Indians, and they grew their own crops. But the British did everything they could to switch them to rum, which they produced, controlled, and taxed. Colonial authorities issued rum to indentured recruits as medicine. They imposed heavy license fees to grow ganja. Rum eventually caught on and rum shops popped up, creating a rum-shop culture that endures today, Bahadur writes.

Many indentured women, like the slaves before them, used natural methods of contraception and abortion. Women’s reproductive power and control continue to be a source of resentment to men around the world. The anthropologist Brackette F. Williams found these attitudes when she did fieldwork in Guyana in the 1980s. “Men say women start life ahead of men and remain ahead because they are born with an acre of land between their legs”—the ability to have children, Williams writes. On the other hand, men must “buy” land in order to have access to this “feminine acre.”

A culture of sexual and general violence endures. This practice of stripping and using belts to lash girl and boy children, as well as domestic and sexual abuse, have endured in my own extended family even after they immigrated from Guyana to North America in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2010, the year Bahadur visited Guyana, at least eighteen women died because of intimate partner violence in Guyana each month—four times the rate in the United States in 2007 and thirteen times the U.K. rate.

The cause of domestic violence continues to be sexual insecurities and jealousy. The method of cutting women down to size has not changed either. Most households in the Guyana countryside still have a cutlass (or a machete). Bahadur writes: “It’s the tool to chop cane, and it’s still an instrument to dismember women.” Farming of bones.

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It is this nasty aftertaste that flooded our senses at Kara Walker’s Domino Sugar Refinery installation in 2014. The Sugar Sphinx is a forceful symbol of an exploitative global past that has not passed. In fact, it was being recreated right in front of us as people took selfies that mocked the Sugar Sphinx, sexualized her, and humiliated her. They tried to take her down from her sweet throne.

The Sugar Sphinx is a monument to black women, that mighty mode of production that generated the most valuable commodity of all: unpaid workers who were the collateral that made Empire possible. Walker’s installation examined a collective history that remains mostly private: scenes taking place behind closed doors on far-off plantations and in kitchens and sleeping quarters. She made this history and our still troubling reactions to them exuberantly public. Far from gone, the basic carnal impulses that drove her exploitation are never far below the surface.

The same can be said about the basic dynamics around notions of money, power, and luxury. Everything has a price. Two weeks after the exhibit closed to the public, the Sugar Sphinx was dismantled. Walker kept the left hand of the Sphinx as a souvenir. The sugar babies that survived were put up for sale, fetching upwards of $200,000. The Museum of Modern Art was among the collectors. A spinoff exhibit, African Boy Attendant Curio (Bananas), was on view at the Brooklyn Museum in 2015, and then traveled to Miami Beach where he mingled among moneyed collectors at Art Basel.

The rest of the exhibit, including the glorious Sugar Sphinx herself, was bulldozed along with the factory. Thus the material Sugar Sphinx vanished. She is reduced to our memories, an ocean of digital photos, a hashtag. She’s an angry ghost—the vengeance of Heaven, called down.

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A former staff writer, editor, and culture critic at the Washington Post and The Root, Natalie Hopkinson is an assistant professor in Howard University’s graduate program in communication, culture and media studies and a fellow at the Interactivity Foundation. 

Copyright © 2018 by Natalie Hopkinson. This excerpt originally appeared in A Mouth Is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

Editor: Dana Snitzky