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Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibition

Nicholas Powers Jul 16, 2014

“You are recreating the very racism this art is supposed to critique,” I yelled. The visitors lowered their cameras. Just seconds ago, they had been aiming their lenses at the sculpture of a 40-foot-tall, nude Black female sphinx coated in white sugar. Many posed under its ass; some laughed and pointed at its vulva. As I watched their joking, my thoughts spun and I walked into the crowd, turned to face them and began yelling.

It wasn’t my rage, it was our rage. Since May, gentrified Brooklyn buzzed with talk of the new Kara Walker exhibition, a giant sculpture of a Mammy sphinx at the derelict Domino Sugar Factory. On the Internet, one could see it was the size of a house, with full African lips and a flat nose, a doo-rag knotted on its forehead. Officially titled A Subtlety, it received glowing reviews on NPR’s All Things Considered and the New York Times. I was curious but also felt a low alarm going off in the back of my head. In early June, I went to the exhibition. The anxiety increased when I saw the factory — in line, nearly everyone was white. The alarm rang louder.

‘Through the Eyes of Others’

The alarm is a reflex most minorities have. It’s a rising anxiety that signals you are surrounded by people too privileged to know they’re hurting you. Or who would not care if they did. It can beep quietly. Or blare like a foghorn. The alarm is part of the psychological package that W.E.B. Du Bois described in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk as, “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”

As the long line moved under the bright sun, I feared the mostly white visitors would not see me or the violent history the art reflected. Staffers of Creative Time, the nonprofit that commissioned the work, were giving visitors release forms. We signed and walked through the gate. On the side of the building was the work’s full title, 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. Okay, I thought, at least a sign is up. And with the news videos, the reviews and the Creative Time webpage, maybe visitors won’t be carried away by a naked Black female sculpture and actually see the painful history it represented.  

Inside the factory, cool, sweet air filled my nose. It was a rusted cathedral of industry, held up by blistered girders. Across the warehouse I saw the white Mammy sphinx. Visitors bunched around caramel-like statues of children holding baskets. They were antebellum figurines of slave boys, made of resin coated in molasses. The irony of them molded into sugar was of course symbolic of the money and power distilled from their bodies. Viewers seemed to get it. Maybe, I thought, it was safe to turn off the alarm? And then I saw a balding white father, posing with his son next to one of the boy statues, his arms folded across his chest “gangsta” style as the mother took a photo.

Black Pain, White Laughter

Anger shot up my body like a hot thermometer. Face flushed, I walked to the Mammy sphinx. Couples posed in front of it, smiling as others took their photos. So here it was, an artwork about how Black people’s pain had been transformed into money was a tourist attraction for them. A few weeks ago, I had gone to the 9/11 museum and no one, absolutely no one, posed for smiling pictures in front of the wreckage.

I caught the eye of the few people of color, we talked and shook our heads at the jokey antics of the white visitors. We felt invisible. So did our history. The feeling stung and we wanted to leave. I forced myself to go the backside of the statue and saw there what I expected to see, white visitors making obscene poses in front of the ass and vulva of the Subtlety. A heavy sigh fell out me. “Don’t they see that this is about rape?” I muttered as another visitor stuck out his tongue. 

What is the responsibility of the artist? Is it different for a Black artist who creates in the midst of political struggle? I first saw Walker’s work more than a decade ago in Boston and remember studying her panorama of black silhouettes. Violent sex, violent lashings, prancing slave owners and mutilated Black bodies wrapped the room. The spark of her art came from taking the form of 19th century visual vocabulary, quaint history book illustration, and using it to represent the actual brutality occurring at the time. Standing there, I admired her technical ability and her vision, her ability to force us to read the suppression of real violence under an epoch’s ideology. And yet, I wondered even then if exposing the details of Black victimization was truly freeing if it simply triggered the pain of people of color, and in the precarious atmosphere of the nearly all-white art world at that.

Now, more than a decade later, I was going for a second visit to see A Subtlety. I brought my friend Nia. “Brace yourself,” I told her. Sure enough, she saw what I had seen. Of course we both marveled at the immensity of the Mammy sphinx. Just the sheer size of it pushed us back on our heels. The physical weight of all that sugar, a symbol of the pain and profit wrung from our ancestors, our Black bodies, fell on us hard. All those lives destroyed, I thought, all that death. And then a white couple goofily posed in front of the Mammy sphinx’s breasts. Nia and I left.

We Are Here

On my last trip there I was with a group of friends. Again we stood under a bright sun in a long line. Again Creative Time staff handed out release forms. But now a new team was there, people of color, working with the We Are Here project. They gave us stickers reading “We Are Here,” meant to remind white visitors that the descendants of slaves were in the room, present and watching. 

I wasn’t a part of the group officially, but I was part of the collective mind. Again we entered the factory, again the sickly sweet air swept over us. My friend, a dancer, looked at the molasses-covered slave boys holding their heavy baskets and remarked on how it injured their backs to carry that kind of weight. Again, we were seeing the sculptures from an historical perspective, one that our lives are rooted in. She pointed to an older white woman photographing her daughter smiling next to a slave boy. We were both getting angry. Others in the group were too.

A few of us went to the backside of the Mammy sphinx. A crowd milled around and lights flashed from their cameras. I was late for a meeting and going to leave when a white man kneeled and aimed his camera at his Asian-American friend, who made a goofy face under the giant buttocks. Something snapped. I strode to the front, turned around and yelled at the crowd that when they objectify the sculpture’s sexual parts and pose in front of it like tourists they are recreating the very racism the art was supposed to critique. I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes.

A Stunned Silence

A stunned silence paralyzed the crowd until I walked back, and then loud talk rose like a tornado. One of the Creative Time curators came up to me and said if I was going to make statements to let people know I wasn’t part of their organization. A friend cut in, saying loudly that I didn’t have to say shit. They got into a debate that heated up into a verbal fight. Visitors came up to me, some saying I was wrong; others saying I was right.

It was like a sleeping beehive had been kicked over. Security was called and it got tense. I missed most of what happened because people were in my face. By the time I left, one friend was in tears and the curator was very nearly there too, clutching her writing pad like a shield. 

It felt great to confront the “white gaze,” the entitled buffoonery of the visitors. But why did we have to? Why did the organizers of We Are Here even have to do that work? Wasn’t the job of Walker or at least of Creative Time’s staff to curate a racially charged artwork? Yes, Walker has the freedom to express herself. Yes, Creative Time has the freedom to organize it. But what do you expect will happen if you put a giant sculpture of a nude Black woman, as a Mammy no less, in a public space?

People are going to bring prejudices and racial entitlement into the space. That’s clear. Instead of challenging the power dynamics of white supremacy, Walker and Creative Time, in their naïveté or arrogance, I don’t know which, simply made the Domino Sugar Factory a safe place for it. Thanks for nothing, Ms. Walker!

After the We Are Here protest and my angry outburst made a few waves, the sad thing is that thousands of visitors were still seeing a sculpture that symbolizes the history of racial violence with no guidelines on how to interpret it. Among them were visitors of color who faced the continued mockery of their history. One friend wrote to me, “When I went, 2 white men stood arm and arm smiling for a ‘fb pic’ with her backside in the background. I wanted to cry, scream and break their faces. It made me so sick.”

If visitors have the freedom to express their contempt for our history, we have the freedom to protest them. When we do, we let everyone know that unlike the mute Mammy sphinx, we can speak for ourselves.

Nicholas Powers is the author of Ground Below Zero.