Dominos exhibition “A Subtlety”, not so Subtle

BY lyanne


Last week we reported that Glocally attended with Newark artesian vendors, the annual African art festival in Brooklyn.  While in Brooklyn we got an opportunity to visit the Domino factory exhibition by Kara Walker, before it closed.  Deep in the 132 year past of the refinery, Ms Walker steered up the abandon facility with memories of slavery.  The exhibition was thought provoking and created much dialogue and conversations of the visitor, add to this the changing and gentrification of Brooklyn a unique opportunity to ask the question. How sugar, a common most treasure food commodity stood on the backs of slaves throughout the Americas.  Although Dominos sugar was the refining of the powdery substance industrialization, the exhibition and conversation explored a darker not so sweet relationship.  The media cover the Brooklyn elite such as Beyonce, Jay Z and baby Blue Ivy touring the exhibition, but witnessing it for myself,  Priceless.

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The abandon factory provided the canvas of 30,000 square feet to explore her passionate expression.  Columbia School of the Arts professor Kara Walker has never been one to sugarcoat the truth—and she isn’t stopping now with her first large-scale public project:


The Creative Time’s, the sponsor of the installation of Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” She calls the work “A Subtlety” — but there’s nothing subtle about it.  A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, is a homage to the unpaid (slaves) 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.  Over the past four decades, Creative Time has commissioned and presented ambitious public art projects with thousands of artists throughout New York City, across the country, around the world—and now even in outer space. Their guided mission consist of three core values: art matters, artists’ voices are important in shaping society, and public spaces are places for creative and free expression. Other project they have commissioned, Tribute in Light, the twin beacons of light that illuminated lower Manhattan six months after 9/11, to bus ads promoting HIV awareness, and Paul Chan’s production of Waiting for Godot in New Orleans.  Additionally, they have commissioned art in unique landmark sites from the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Governors Island, and the High Line, to neglected urban treasures like the Lower East Side’s historic Essex Street Market, Coney Island, and New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward.

 Step into the cavernous space of the hulking Domino Sugar Factory on the Williamsburg, Brooklyn waterfront and you will be greeted by a retinue of forlorn, life-size figures of boys holding baskets, all made from molasses and brown sugar.


Rising behind them out of the darkness, startlingly white and standing more than 35 feet high and 75 feet long, is the sphinx-like sugar baby, created out of refined coated with 40 tons of pure refined white sugar over blocks of Styrofoam.  Those images have drawn over 100,000 people to come see “A Subtlety” for themselves. “Sugar, obesity, race, poverty, all of these things are still in play,” said art critic Alice Twemlow. “It was incredibly powerful.” Tens of thousands of people now know about the role of sugar in the slave trade because of Kara Walker. “It’s kind of a dream come true as an artist,” Walker said. “It’s enriching somehow.”  “It’s such a beautiful space.  It’s doing so much of the work already and I wasn’t sure if I should do a big gesture or something very simple. We had two cement mixers going. We would pour on a 50 pound bag of sugar, bring over a five pound bucket of water and try to defy gravity,” Walker said. The whole building process took 8 weeks.

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The exhibit is inspired by slavery.Walker has consistently used her art for pointed social commentary about slavery and the history of race relations in the United States since her student days at the Rhode Island School of Design, from which she earned her MFA in 1994. She received a MacArthur Award in 1997 at age 27, and has participated in numerous national and international exhibitions, including the full-scale traveling retrospective, Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, which opened at the Walker Art Center in 2007 and traveled to ARC/Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Walker says that her work “is about trying to get a grasp on history … it’s kind of a trap … the meaty, unresolved, mucky blood lust of talking about race where I always feel like the conversation is inconclusive.”


Trained as a painter, Walker decided on a new medium: sculpture.  “The thought process had to do with molasses and the byproducts of the sugar refining process, and molasses as the byproduct of slavery,” Walker said. The exhibit is as much a lesson in history as it is about art. More slaves worked and died on sugar plantations in the new world than on the tobacco or cotton fields of the American south. The free labor and mass production paved the way for worldwide sugar consumption — an appetite still growing today. “In the time of slavery, sugar was considered a blood commodity,” Walker said. Walker dreamed of becoming an artist and educator like her father. She was one of the youngest recipients of the MacArthur fellowship and today sits on the faculty at Columbia university. She is best known for her cut silhouettes exploring themes of slavery and the sexualization of black women, often in graphic detail. “I was at a conference and a black woman artist denounced her — I mean the whole thing; that she was recapitulating stereotypes,” recalled Professor Henry Louis Gates, one of the foremost scholars of black history in America. “But she is criticizing those stereotypes.” “To me, it says she has tremendous courage and knowledge,” said Gates. “Many people like me, think that she’s a genius. She shakes us by the shoulders. How does she do that? Startling, tangible, palpable images.”  The Domino sugar company donated 80 tons of sugar for Walker to build the piece. The exhibit will close last week and the work will be dismantled and recycled ahead of the building’s demolition, which will make way for a 1.5 billion water front development.

“I had tears in my eyes.” Art lovers and curious seekers alike in leaving the abandoned sugar refinery walked away continuing to discuss its dramatic expressions.





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