A Subtlety, The Sugar Sphinx
Titled 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 this is Kara Walker’s largest and most renowned work exploring racism, slavery, femininity, and labor. Every facet of Walker’s piece has symbolic relevance.
The female figure is posed in the classic position of the sphinx, a reference to African antiquity and power. The sculpture is made entirely out of bleached white sugar and placed in the Williamsburg Domino Sugar Factory, the site of a labor strike in 2000. The bleaching of naturally brown sugar cane to construct this figure is believed to represent both racism and colorism, the association between whiteness and power and beauty. The placement of the figure in the factory, as well as the choice of sugar for the material, recalls the history of slavery’s relation to the sugar trade and the labor injustices that remain within the industry. According to Walker, the choice of sugar also references the history of sugar and marzipan sculptures presented to royalty and nobles in Europe. This reference to such sculptures is a commentary on systemic injustices perpetuating economic inequality.
Finally, the woman is fully exposed, save a kerchief on her head. Her female genitalia is showing and her hand is posed in the fig, a hand gesture which can mean either “f*ck you” or good luck depending on its cultural context. In this way, the piece comments on femininity, the commodification of the black female form, and cultural subjectivity. This is a piece that grapples with a host of multifaceted, complicated and subversive issues. This piece represents the history that underlies all our modern struggles within the global free market. In her piece, Walker makes the point that the issues of our day are inseparable from both one another and from their history. In order to address any injustice, one must recognize all.