The Riddle of the Sphinx

My graduate thesis on Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (section 1)

In the two and a half millennia since Oedipus’ encounter with the sphinx on the road to Thebes, many artists and authors have looked to this mythical beast to help address the most insurmountable of questions. In 2014 the celebrated contemporary artist Kara Walker famously revived the fierce half-woman, halflioness to confront one of contemporary life’s most powerful enigmas, namely that of race in the United States, and in particular, the questions of how race, gender and sexuality intersect in the long shadow cast by the Atlantic slave trade .

To fully address the complexity of this question, Walker works to confront the ugliest things that many people believe to be true about raced and gendered bodies. The features of Walker’s sphinx are boldly over-embellished and receive the painful history of stereotypes and structural violence projected onto her body. By producing 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 (2014) at the crossroads of different highly aestheticized myths and comedies of the grotesque, Walker provided an opportunity to confront the unanswerable yet wholly vital questions that lie in the heart of American social relations.

Too often, when questions of race (in particular) are raised, they are raised in legal proceedings or in the service of direct political action. In these situations, it seems imperative to answer the riddle — this often over-simplifies things and leaves too much unaddressed. We are haunted by what remains. Walker evokes the ghosts of slavery and asks that we acknowledge them, each from our different vantage points. Her work provides few (if any) solutions, but demands that we ask better questions about race and gender relations in America.

A Subtlety was not the first time Walker provoked viewers in this way. Walker launched her artistic career at an early age with the exhibition of her installation Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart at the Drawing Center in New York City (1994). Only three years after receiving her graduate degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, Walker exhibited her now characteristic peoplescapes depicting haunting imagery of extreme racial and gendered violence. Gone, like much of her work since, used simplified materials and exaggerated forms to address highly complex issues around the black female body. As Walker herself has since commented, finding the silhouette as a form, “simplified the frenzy I was working myself into. It created the outward appearance of calm.”

Gone’s elaborate black and white cut-out silhouettes of figures portrayed in compromised positions and exhibited on interior gallery walls, included distortions of the human figure in awkward poses, postures and interactions. The content of Gone was largely sexual, displaying phallic imagery merging with that of innocent figures like children. The female figures’ sexuality was vulgarized through associating the action of birthing children with defecation. Racial aggression toward the black female body by white bodies is displayed through the imposition of bestiality upon women, the doubling of children as devils, and the implications of rape. While many of the black figures are receiving abusive action, others are perpetrating it upon themselves. Walker’s silhouettes disguise her figures, making the viewer question the identity of the person they are actually looking at, while also forcing the viewer to confront the ways in which we have learned to read race through the uses of caricature and stereotype.

Following this exhibition Walker received the “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, making her the youngest ever recipient of the award. Soon after, she installed a solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which continued to confront the absurd racial stereotypes living on today, many years after the end of milestone events for racial equality such the Civil War. This show caused uproar, and the perhaps more established black artist at the time, Betye Saar — who is most well known for her painting The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972) — led a historic campaign against Walker. After seeing her SFMOMA exhibition and reading the glowing reviews, Saar accused Walker of betraying the black race through her use of crude imagery, most notably that of the work titled The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995). Saar saw nothing but white backlash and elitism as the possible response to this work due to the compromising positions in which Walker placed her figures. Saar’s work relied on the positive reappropriation of stereotypes similar to those Walker included in a far more enigmatic manner. While gathering some support from other black artists, Saar’s campaign was largely dismissed, as people were aware of the great effort and thought that Walker put into the work. Others, unlike Saar, saw Walker’s work as employing new imagery to understand the way race and gender persistently affect American society.

According to Walker, the foundation of her work arises from her experiences as a black woman in the United States and her efforts to understand her particular situation. She was born in California, where she lived until age 13, when her family moved to Georgia for her father’s career. Walker immediately felt the impact of the cultural differences between her previous home state and her new one. Georgia openly carried the burden of slavery’s history and its ongoing impact on racial segregation and inequality through their war time confederacy memorials and tourism of antebellum plantations. Being confronted with this new highly volatile cultural environment, Walker began to see herself differently. As Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw describes, Walker was prompted to see “her racial identity as something that was lived and performed on a daily basis in a sort of ‘pageant’ in which she was unwilling to participate.” In Dubois’ book, Walker talks of her experience in Georgia as one where she gained an additional layer of self-consciousness. This eventually led her to leave Georgia when it came time for higher education. In her departure from the south, Walker worked in school to research the history and theory of race relations in America, in order to create the disturbing content of her silhouetted works.

As Walker explains, “We tell stories of events to allude to the unspeakable.” Her works are able to tell harrowing stories, by pointing to shadows of those realities from which most work to dissimilate themselves. She presents racial degradation in the guise of highly formal aesthetics, relying on body language to tell a history not documented elsewhere. Because of Walker’s willingness to confront what is most frightening about race relations, the non-profit arts organization Creative Time invited her to produce an installation in the Brooklyn, New York Domino Sugar Refinery in 2014. As Ann Pasternak, President and Artistic Director of Creative Time, said, “it’s our belief at Creative Time that public art creates a space to engage in those difficult conversations [history of slavery, mythologizing of black women’s bodies, etc].” Creative Time has been curating and commissioning public art exhibitions in New York since 1973, with the core mission being to share art with the public. Creative Time presents art outside the gallery cube to use radically site-specific locations to add further layers of meaning to the work it commissions. When considering an exhibition in the soon-to-be demolished Domino Sugar Refinery they recognized the existing impact of Walker’s work and knew she would create a significant piece at this complicated site.

The Domino Sugar Refinery was one of the leading sugar refineries in the United States and has a unique history of its own. The original refinery dated back to 1779, founded by an English immigrant. As the business grew the owners needed a new location, leading them to the Brooklyn waterfront. They established this final location in the mid 19th Century, due to the site’s easy river access. In 1882 the building burned to the ground and was rebuilt in the same location, this time with more space to continue production for the growing demand of sugar. Through the late 19th Century to the early 20th Century the company faced ups and downs in profitability. Their success was affected by several factors. Former US president Franklin D. Roosevelt reduced the ability for companies to have monopolies over a given market. The refinery struggled with the ability to apply innovative approaches in marketing their product. Most available resources were being used for wartime efforts. To top it all off, the government imposed sugar rationing. Shortly after their down period, the company attained an increased and stable profit margin. They began producing high-fructose corn syrup, to counter the information nutritional advocates were revealing about the lack of dietary value from sugar. At this point, in the 1980’s, a larger company, which changed the name over to the Domino Sugar Factory, bought the company. In 2004, the Refinery stopped operations and in 2010 it was scheduled to undergo demolition to make room for new urban development. Throughout this time, the refinery maintained their silent role of managing the American consumer’s relationship with sugar.

The Domino Sugar Refinery’s relevance goes further than the dining room table. Due to their connection with the Trans Atlantic trade, what the Refinery represents crosses over into race relations, geographic mapping of cultures and the health of factory workers. Nato Thompson, the chief curator of Creative Time addresses this in the curatorial statement for A Subtlety saying,

Walker’s gigantic temporary sugar-sculpture speaks of power, race, bodies,
women, sexuality, slavery, sugar refining, sugar consumption, wealth
inequity, and industrial might that uses the human body to get what it needs
no matter the cost to life and limb.

Thompson’s statement and Walker’s work acknowledge how Americans are willing to overlook the overlapping the persistence of sexual abuse, racial hierarchies, and political in equality to name a few of the persistent effects that slavery and the Trans Atlantic trade has on people of color. It is these areas where the problematic nature of the Domino Sugar Refinery was exposed.

Yet, despite this challenging past, the Domino Sugar Refinery became a common household association with American society and developed as a nostalgic attachment for middle class families. The company logo on the side of the Refinery reminded people of their connection with the brand that offered a sweet delicious substance they could add to their coffee and desserts. Yet, behind the sweetness was the exploitation of the black race and the trading of human bodies in order to produce a substance not naturally occurring in the Northern American continent. Matching the innocence of the Domino logo [Fig 8], sugar itself served as a symbol of deception; in foods it masked the flavors of other ingredients. In stores it presented itself as a readily available object. In these instances, the external appearance and retail value of sugar hid the amount of labor that went into its production.

While considering sugar as a marketable good, the refinery could be seen as a monument to capitalism. It had an ominous and longstanding presence on the shore of the river next to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. While nostalgia for the brand, Domino, masked the past for people, others like Creative Time’s Anne Pasternak and Kara Walker acknowledged the history of the Refinery. They sought to bring it to the forefront of American culture, during a time of heated debates around race, such as those taking place in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown and the gentrification of neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Through their collaboration A Subtlety was implemented to ask the community to think critically about the refinery and the voice it gave to the remembrance and creation of history.

Understanding the refinery set the stage for understanding A Subtlety, a sitespecific work. Overall, the work appeared to be physically seamless with the structure of the factory, due to the way the base of the sphinx eased into the floor, as if the sculptures were part of the original setting. The work and the refinery were visually united by a similar aged appearance. Matching the aged look of the interior was a lingering smell of burnt sugar. The pervasive substance that was once received, processed and shipped out from this location haunted visitors’ senses. These complimentary visual characteristics were only the beginning of what made Walker’s work successful.

Upon entering the Refinery, the viewer walked by six life-sized sculptures of children commonly referred to as “sugar babies” . These smaller works resembled children who were about four feet tall and dressed in shorts, some in sleeveless tops. Each one was standing upright and carrying something similar to a basket or a sack about the size of their torso. Their stance appeared to be mid motion, as if they were frozen in time. Their color was a dark molasses hue. Three of the sugar babies were made of hard candied sugar, while the other three were of resin. The material of these sculptures reminded the viewer of the relationship between the building and the artwork, through their complimentary use of sugar to impact the production of race relations in America. The sugar babies’ rich brown coloring also matched the rust hue of the factory walls and the skin of the people living in the shadow of the refinery. Over the course of the exhibition the ones made of candied sugar began to melt and spread into a puddle of sticky wetness on the Refinery floor. Their gradual loss of form was a contrast with the resin figures that stayed intact through the exhibition .

While walking amongst the sugar babies, the viewer was continually distracted by the towering figure of the sugar sphinx awaiting them at the other side of the room. The incredible size and pristine white color of the sphinx set it apart from everything else in the space. The top of her head nearly reached the Refinery ceiling, while the sides of her body dramatically sloped down to the floor between her and the walls. Her exaggerated characteristics demand we confront the enigmas of race, gender and sexuality.

As with Gone and previous older works, Walker directly engaged racist stereotypical images of black womanhood in the figure of the sphinx that lay at the heart of A Subtlety. The sugar sphinx’s stereotypical “mammy” presence with handkerchief tied around her forehead asked why black women are so often put in the service of caring for other people’s children before their own . On the other hand, this figuration demands that we consider the complicated role that so many black women are forced to play in American family homes today. The black woman’s complicated role dates back to the Middle Passage (1500–1900), when slave ships and plantations run by white men inhumanely held her body captive. Despite the declared freedom for the black woman after this time period, pervasive white power remained dominant in these cross-racial and gender relationships. Hortense Spillers talks about the implications of the roles assigned to black women in great detail, tracing back to the forced departure from sub-Saharan Africa. She demonstrates how the repetitive violence issued to the black female body disconnected the woman from herself, preventing her from being able to act on her own instincts.

Among the roles the black woman is forced to play in the New World, the mammy figure is one many artists, like Walker, have explored. As with Walker’s other works, A Subtlety presented the mammy in order to portray the way American culture has fragmented the black female’s persona. In A Subtlety, the mammy figure was further interpreted by the presence of the melting sugar babies broken on the floor of the refinery. The broken bodies of the sugar babies were a sight to behold. These babies were presumably children of the sugar sphinx who had been fulfilling her obligations to white men’s duties, while not being able to find time for her own flesh and blood. Those sugar babies, which did not melt, ended up taking care for the others by carrying their remains into their baskets.

The gleaming color of the sphinx’s exterior asked why white bodies are so differently valued than black skin. Situated on the floor of a refinery that bleached brown sugar, the sphinx’s white washing spoke to the unnaturalness of whiteness. The refinery was built primarily for the purposes of taking sugar through the process of preparing it for the American market. Along parallel lines, is the invention of soap, which was marketed for its value in making a person clean (more white). The purpose of reinforcing the value of whiteness is to keep certain political or social hegemonic powers in place by creating barriers through which only some people could pass.

The sphinx’s large exaggerated buttocks asked the viewer why “black women’s bodies continue to bear the gross insult and burden of spectacular (representational) exploitation in transatlantic culture.” A Subltety was produced in the shadows of many hyper-sexualized images of black women that locate a woman’s figure value in the ratio of their hips to their waist. One of the first images to highlight the black female body in this way was the Hottentot Venus, who was historicized as having unusually large reproductive features. The sphinx’s silhouette reminded the viewer of the Hottentot Venus, who was forced to be subjected to the gaze of white people. Kianga Ford writes about the significance of referencing the Hottentot Venus. “The Hottentot Venus functions as a visual signpost that points toward the rampant indulgence in the fantasy of the extreme other.” In this way, A Subtlety questioned the viewers’ interest in looking at the black female body as it generally results in commodification or a possessive pleasurable act.

To further emphasize the sexuality of the black female, Walker’s sphinx was unprotected with an exposed vulva, unlike more classically demure sphinxes, whose lion tails protect their modesty. In her problematic position, the sphinx reinforced the traces of the Middle Passage that haunt the lives of black women today. The sphinx’s exposed vulva was indicative of the black female body’s vulnerability in American society. It alludes to rape and sexual harassment that she is expected to endure due to the way an overly sexual reading is cast onto her from history.

Yet in her vulnerability, the black female is expected to comply to sexual demands of the white male. In A Subtlety, the sphinx’s clenched fists asked why a black woman must be polite while enduring gender and racial injustice. In patriarchal American society, gender and race roles continue to determine the ways people are expected to behave at home, in business and socially. Within the woman’s role involves the expectation for a respectable woman to be supportive and behave gracefully, while allowing a man to lead. She is often not taken as seriously as men when demanding attention or taking on leadership. The gender and racial hierarchy American culture has taught people establishes power among men as a way to control women’s sexuality. The sphinx’s fist surfaced the internal tension and fighting back of emotion concealed by the rest of her body.

As a reminder of the “othering” done to the black female body, A Subtlety’s sphinx’s body features had a caricatured essence, which asked why the black female body is produced artificially as an object. The roundedness in the sphinx’s ankles and disproportionate ratio of buttocks, waist, breasts and shoulders connected her with Glenda Carpio’s writing on the comedy of the grotesque. In the same way Carpio writes that Erskine Caldwell’s work “allowed Ralph Ellison to stare directly at the ‘wacky mirrors’ of American racial discourse and to perceive ever more finely the conflicting emotions that stereotypes can elicit,” so too did Walker’s A Subtlety allow us to reflect upon our relationship with the sphinx’s caricatured body. The unnatural change in the sphinx’s body features estranged her humanity from that of others.

While the sugar sphinx embodied many negative stereotypes of the black female, she possessed a dignity that demanded respect from the viewer. Her grand size and perfect posture expressed the respect she held for herself. She sat at the end of the Refinery as if it was her palace and her seat a throne. The visitors, who came to see her, went through great efforts (long lines, hot weather, uneven walkways) to get there, as her presence summoned people into attendance of her space. Her enigma was exemplified in this aspect of her confounding nature bordering on America’s perception of the black woman and who she actually is.

The enigma of the sphinx is a provocative encounter. In a sense, Walker has conjured the figures that Spillers calls for in Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Gammar Book. Spillers writes,

“Let’s face it, I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name.
‘Peaches’ and ‘Brown Sugar,’ ‘Sapphire’ and ‘Earth
Mother,’’Aunty,’’Granny,’ God’s ‘Holy Fool,’ a ‘Miss Ebony First,’ or
‘Black Woman at the Podium’: I describe a locus of confounded identities, a
meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasure of
rhetorical wealth. My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have
to be invented.”26

Spillers notes the racially charged contradictions placed upon the black female figure and the confounding inability for them to be untangled. When we recall the myth of Oedipus, we realize how the sphinx reminds us of the mortal danger at hand if an attempt is made at unraveling her riddled personae. The sphinx, like Spillers words, alludes to the unsolvable racial and gender problems that continue to haunt and further damage American culture. The sphinx held an unavoidable presence in the Domino Sugar Refinery, at a timely moment when racial conflict seemed to be heightened even more than in the past.

Like what you read? Give Libby Nicholaou a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.