this past saturday was the big day. i’d finally gone to see kara walker’s creative time commission, “a subtlety” at the domino sugar factory. kara walker has been quite the polarizing, yet shining star of the art world with her constant antebellum theme, so i was interested in what she would come up with. the opening happened and my ig timeline was flooded with pictures of this mammy-sphinx hybrid made from sugar. after a couple “whoa! she went theres”, i made it my business to get down there; obviously to see the work, but to also watch people’s reactions.
after waiting about 15, 20 minutes in line that included standing across from my beloved 285 kent now tea house and kiddie gymnastics studio, we were in. the first thing that hits you is the strong smell of sugar. I watched walker’s nypl talk and the interviewer made it like the factory smelled like sweat and underpaid labor, so i was ready to whip out a sars mask if necessary. alas, it was the sweetest smell that felt like a good hug from your favorite sunday school teacher. we were greeted by a series of sugar boys, some made from resin, then covered in molasses and others that were complete taffy sculptures. instagram didn’t prepare me for how huge they would be. without shoes, we would be the same height. check me and my shocked face.
we continued to weave through the factory stopping at every boy to marvel at them. i get a quick glimpse of the reason we were all here and holy, was she huge! i direct my attention back to another sugar boy and then everything hits me like a ton of bricks. i was sent this meme last week and laughed hysterically.
however, in this moment, i lost sight of all humor standing in front of a sugar boy carrying a huge basket oozing what began to look more like blood than molasses. i look to my right and a white kid is licking one of the boys while his parents stood there unphased. i muttered a “why cant they ever control their kids?” and walked over to get a full on, yet still distant view of the sugar sphinx. two seconds later, my eyes exploded and i’m crying all over myself. i obviously didn’t expect to start crying, but it happened and i let those tears run free. i was snapped out of my sobfest by a white guy yelling “this is boring!”. tears for my ancestors turned into hot, angry tears and it took everything in me to not walk over and clobber him to death.
i pulled myself together and walked directly in front of the subtlety and could not stop staring. it was the heaviest, literally and figuratively, piece of artwork i have ever seen. calling up the damage done to the west indies, that have yet to recover, over the precious sweetener. this white-colored woman with african features is speaking to the refinement process turning naturally brown sugar white and how it relates to black folk and our refinement process. the exposed vag conjured up emotions about the hypersexualization of black women throughout america’s early years and how mother africa continues to be raped for her resources. in the midst of all of this feeling, i’m hearing people yell “sugar tits!”, “hey, did you get a picture of the lips? those sweet lips!”, and “that’s a big ass!”. then came the photo opps ranging from sexually inappropriate to the “home alone” scream face. my head is spinning at this point and it became very clear that this behavior was coming from one source, the white visitors. to be clear, this is not a blanket statement and more than half of the white people there were acting normal (or keeping their antics to themselves).
look, I knew going into this that the black people in attendance would be in a completely different headspace than the non-blacks. this show was telling an American story, but via our face. a story that save for a few generations, would have us cast as main characters. after storming out of the factory filled with post-viewing of “roots” black rage, i took to instagram to survey the scene under the #karawalkerdomino tag. this is what I found.
like a fool, i expected all adults involved to act like…i dunno…adults? after sitting through a (well-meaning) white guy interrupting a libation ceremony at the brooklyn library’s henrietta lacks celebration two weeks ago, i got the sense that deep reverence may not be white people’s spiritual gift, but come on! where’s the respect? how do you not realize that you are currently standing a) on sacred ground and b) staring the yuckiness of our country dead in the face?! i’m sure scholarly black folk would call this ‘white privilege’, but i’m not one to give big, fancy names and deep meanings to something that can simply be called ‘bad behavior’, ‘no home training’, or what the kids call having ‘no chill’.
colorlines posted an article entitled, “the overwhelming whiteness of black art” last week talking about the huge gap between black and white art patrons. white people’s lack of chill on Saturday shot my mind back to this article and made me wonder what white people think when they are taking in all of this work from black artists. for most (all?) black artists, their work ties back to their blackness. kara walker has been doing 2-d slavery scenes since the beginning of time and i always felt uneasy about how it was received by white viewership. with all of the white people viewing “a subtlety”, i wonder what are their reasons? where does their interest lie? how are they explaining these sculptures to their children? (if you haven’t gone yet, expect tons of babies running amuck) hell, how are they explaining it to themselves? is stopping by domino factory just the current “it” thing to do in nyc? are they leaving with a better understanding of the existence of black people in this country?
after saturday’s experience, i am feeling super overprotective of black artists. i want to put my performance artist hat on and shroud every piece of black work in the world with a drape and a sign reading “for mature and reverent eyes only. disrespect will not be tolerated.” as a people, we are discounted, ignored, and mistreated on a daily basis by this country. can we at least protect that which holds our stories and continuing legacy or are we left powerless like our forefathers when massa was yelling for our mama’s sweet lips and sugar tits? oh.
i’m heading back to the sugar factory this friday as soon as it opens to hopefully have some time alone with “a subtlety”. i want to be able to love on her without any distraction. by july 8th, she will be apart of our memory’s museum, but we are left with the knowledge that they women she represents loved us. they prayed for us more than they even prayed for themselves. they endured subjugation and hard labor knowing that it would birth opportunity for us. we are the fruits of an unshaken tree that have no other option besides excellence. as i said in my gentrification series, only white people can change white people. i hope that some of the offenders have an awakening on their own or via another viewer, but it’s not my job to do it for them. it would be great if nymag or brooklyn mag could answer my questions through an in-depth article with visitor responses, but i can’t hold my breath for that. what i (and everyone else that had a crappy experience at the show) must remember is that neither a tasteless instagram post, nor sex-laden comment yelled in that factory will take away the richness of our history or the validity of our existence and how sweet that is!
*editor’s note: the article oddly didn’t mention the zillions of us visiting black art galleries/museums, but i’m assuming they wanted to focus on mainstream art venues.