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Kara Walker's immense, sugar-coated sphinx measuring 75.5-feet long, 35.5-feet high, and 26 feet wide Kara Walker’s immense, sugar-coated sphinx measuring 75.5-feet long, 35.5-feet high, and 26 feet wide

There are those who think the Empire State Building, in all its Manhattan exuberance soaring towards the sky, is the apt symbol for New York. But a choice that may be truer to the very essence of our city, as it was and as it will be, is the Domino Sugar Refinery on the Brooklyn waterfront.

Sugar helped make New York rich, dominant, and powerful in the mid- to late 19th century, when its production was Brooklyn’s most important and innovative industry, until the 1930s, when, like much in New York, it declined precipitously. In many ways, what happens with the development of the Domino site—prime real estate on the Brooklyn waterfront—will tell us a great deal about our future. 

The Domino Sugar Factory on the East River closed in 2004. The Domino Sugar Factory on the East River closed in 2004.

Though it may look romantic in retrospect, sugar was no benign industry, either in the north, where raw sugar was processed, or in the deep South and Caribbean, where it was cut and harvested by slaves, indentured servants, and poorly paid freemen.

Robber baron owners, led by the Havemeyers (familiar to New Yorkers for their fabulous art collections donated to the Met), ruthlessly reaped the economic advantages of exploited labor. The U.S. ended slavery in 1865, but the Havemeyers were able to import cheap sugar from Cuba, which maintained slavery until 1886. By the time slavery was finally abolished in most of the Western Hemisphere, a system of share-cropping and forced labor effectively kept prices low.

Kara Walker explaining her work beside boy of sugar Kara Walker explaining her work beside boy of sugar

It is within this brutal context that Kara Walker, a much-acclaimed artist, has set her controversial sculptures in an exhibit that will be open to the public from Saturday, May 10th, through July 6. As you enter Domino’s soon-to-be demolished  warehouse, the soothing scent of molasses—which you’ll see dripping on the walls, like an elegant modernist artwork—engulfs you. You’ll see the polystyrene sphinx in the distance—80 tons of white sugar shaped into a sphinx-woman with African features wearing a prominent scarf, like an old-fashioned mammy—and a processional of boy sculptures carrying baskets and bananas attending her.

Walker entitled her sphinx “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.” A subtlety, she told Kara Rooney of The Brooklyn Rail, was a medieval sugar sculpture “intended to represent the power of the king, not just in their being made of this prized commodity, but also in their representation of the signing of a treaty, or the hunt.”

Slave boy sculpture made of amber candy Slave boy sculpture made of amber candy

The dark boy sculptures are entirely different in feeling—big lollipops, says Walker. Nato Thompson, chief curator at Creative Time, which commissioned and presented the exhibit, dubbed the boy sculptures “creepy.” We would call them poignant—cherubic, babyish, and slightly apprehensive. Certainly there’s something ominous about them, as if they are too eager to please and will soon be harshly punished.

Kara Walker pondering one of her candy slave-boy sculptures Kara Walker pondering one of her candy slave-boy sculptures

But ultimately the viewer returns to the sphinx, crouched as if ready to pounce from the front, but giving an entirely different perspective from the rear, evoking unmistakably the sexual submission of slavery. What will happen to her when the Domino warehouse is demolished? “She will go the way of this building,” muses Walker. “She will die when the building does.”

Kara Walker's sphinx-subtlety, crouching erotically Kara Walker’s sphinx-subtlety, crouching erotically

Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” opens Saturday, May 10
When: May 10-July 6, Fridays 4-8 PM, Saturdays & Sundays, 12-6 PM
Where: Domino Sugar Factory, South 1st Street @Kent Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
FREE

Julia Vitullo-Martin is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association. Get in touch with her @JuliaManhattan.

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