NYU Black Renaissance Noire Winter 2014 - Page 96

Carol Diehl “Dirty Sugar” Kara Walker’s dubious alliance with Domino 94 There’s much that disturbs me about Kara Walker’s much-lauded and wildly popular installation at Brooklyn’s defunct Domino Sugar refinery, but I’ll start with its undeniable beauty. Made of sparkling white sugar, this gigantic, crouching sphinx-like figure, with curves like a Brancusi, looms like a symbol of purity in the vast darkness and decay of the factory’s interior. The sweet smell is overwhelming, and the piece itself is intended to degrade over time; when I was there, skeletal dark lines were beginning to form between the polystyrene blocks that form the core of the sculpture. Conceptually and figuratively, it’s a virtuoso performance that brilliantly fulfills part of nonprofit Creative Time’s original mission to “support the creation of innovative, site-specific, socially engaged works in the public realm, especially in vacant spaces of historical and architectural interest… while pushing artists beyond their “normal boundaries.” [see note] So why does its beauty upset me? Because the installations’ sheer gorgeousness and spectacle serve as a distraction from the insidious agenda that makes a mockery of another part of Creative Time’s mission, to “foster social progress.” I have long felt that Walker’s work — in which blacks are portrayed as passive victims of slavery engaged in psycho-sexual drama — doesn’t invalidate, but rather reinforces the stereotypes whites have imposed on blacks to justify racism, and is entirely dependent on the gratuitous titillation that violence and sex inevitably engender, regardless of the context — or the race of the person who perpetrates them. Walker’s sphinx conflates two familiar white parodies of black women: the big-assed, sexually available Jezebel, with her vulva hanging out for the taking, and her opposite, the maternal, large-breasted but desexualized Mammy, who sublimates her own needs to fulfill those of her white charges. Whites are discouraged from criticizing black artists, but white critics, curators, and collectors are free to ratify work that enrages many black intellectuals, whose protests are then dismissed as attempts at censorship. That Walker’s work is celebrated, even tolerated, tells a lot about the racism that’s still subtly endemic in the art world; it’s hard to imagine a “genius grant” being awarded to an artist, no matter how Jewish, whose specialty was caricatures of big-nosed Jews sucking Nazi dick. Vulgar photos taken by visitors posing with the “sphinx” are all over Instagram, and castigated online by writers who are upset that the artwork is not being shown proper respect. Derived from minstrel shows where whites in blackface lampooned blacks, the caricatures Walker appropriates were created with the specific intention of provoking ridicule. Should we then be surprised when they succeed? Roberta Smith in the Times writes that Walker “evokes the history of the sugar trade, its dependence on slavery and slavery’s particular degradation of women, while also illuminating the plagues of obesity and diabetes that keep so many American dreams unfulfilled.” Yet it can also be said that Walker is providing massive adv W'F