That Time Kara Walker Slayed You | #WCW
Can we just sit and bask in the genius of this woman for a second?
Kara Walker is my all-time favorite contemporary artist. She makes work that's fearless, divisive, gut-wrenching, and from the moment I first saw one of her iconic silhouette cutouts during an art lecture slideshow in college, I was hooked in. She tells the truth, whether you like it or not. And she does it in a way that transcends the object, painting, sculpture, puppet show, or cutout she's made. And this truth right here? Man, she really did it to us this time.
Kara Walker's sugar sculpture was commissioned by Creative Time to commemorate the closing down of the Domino Sugar factory in New York City. The official title of the installation was "A Subtlety, or, the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World." And right there in the title, juxtaposed against the physicality of the sculpture, you know that she's referencing over 300 years of labor history in the Americas - both slave labor and labor commissioned at slave wages.
As it went with a lot of her past works of art, this one was no exception when it comes to controversy. There is a sizable population of black people in America who absolutely do not want our history and past as slaves depicted at all in front of white people, even when the depiction is a criticism and wake-up call. To be frank, I can't say that I respect their opinion, but I do respect their right to how they feel about it. They were present for "the show". Also present - oblivious white people who took Walker's spectacle as an opportunity to be complete buffoons. Insensitive to the histories she was referencing, they took derogatory selfies in front of and behind the sculpture, posting them to social media as if it were all a joke. What I know, however, and many others who have been following Walker's work for a long time, is that her objective isn't just to make a spectacular object, but also to provoke site-specific, in the moment spectacle.
One such spontaneous spectacle involved Nicholas Powers, an author who witnessed the white buffoonery, and yelled in the middle of the exhibit; his rage not directed at them, but at the work of art in itself. As it goes with a lot of otherwise enlightened, progressive black people I know, I don't think he was familiar with Kara Walker's art history, and didn't even know that she's a black woman, depicting history in a way that only she can. If he were aware, maybe he would have understood that the white obliviousness in front of him and his subsequent reaction and arguments with the Creative Time staff were intentionally provoked by Kara. Or maybe he was aware, and he just doesn't like her approach to New World history, and as I said previously, that is his right. Since I didn't have the opportunity to view the sculpture in person, I was on the lookout for public reactions, as I knew that there was where the ultimate "payoff" was in understanding Walker's artistic intention. But I never would have guessed that she was filming all of it.
As Katherine Brooks says in her Huffpost article, "Just when you thought you were doing the objectifying, Kara Walker and her sugar sphinx prove that the artist is always in control." That's right. Miss girl went and compiled a 28 minute video titled "An Audience", watching your reaction. I love this quote from her:
I mean... shit. What are you gonna say to that?
Dear Kara, you sneaky bitch. You fierce art-goddess, giving the oblivious what they deserve and reminding the conscious of what we should never forget. I'm not worthy to kiss your feet, but dammit if I ever see you again, I'll try.