Why The Behavior Of White People Shouldn’t Be Policed At The Kara Walker “Sugar Baby” Exhibit
In an essay entitled, Why I Yelled At the Kara Walker Exhibit, SUNY Westbury Professor Nicholas Powers explained what happened when he went to see the much talked about and controversial Kara Walker exhibition at the old Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
From The Indypendent:
A few of us went to the backside of the Mammy sphinx. A crowd milled around and lights flashed from their cameras. I was late for a meeting and going to leave when a white man kneeled and aimed his camera at his Asian-American friend, who made a goofy face under the giant buttocks. Something snapped. I strode to the front, turned around and yelled at the crowd that when they objectify the sculpture’s sexual parts and pose in front of it like tourists they are recreating the very racism the art was supposed to critique. I yelled that this was our history and that many of us were angry and sad that it was a site of pornographic jokes.
A stunned silence paralyzed the crowd until I walked back, and then loud talk rose like a tornado. One of the Creative Time curators came up to me and said if I was going to make statements to let people know I wasn’t part of their organization. A friend cut in, saying loudly that I didn’t have to say sh*t. They got into a debate that heated up into a verbal fight. Visitors came up to me, some saying I was wrong; others saying I was right.
Well damn, Nicholas! I guess he was like, ‘turn down for what?’ Seriously, I am so mad I wasn’t present for that…
To his credit, this was his third time seeing the exhibit. On the first visit, he writes about feeling assaulted by “a balding white father, posing with his son next to one of the boy statues, his arms folded across his chest ‘gangsta’ style as the mother took a photo.” So it is understandable that he might have been a little over white folks’ shenanigans by the time he made his third visit to the exhibit.
However, Powers goes on and attributes such shenanigans to Walker and Creative Time, which is the non-profit that commissioned the piece, saying that they should have curated the space and added context to what everybody was seeing, and were supposed to be taking from the piece. He laments such points by highlighting the counter-rally outside of the Walker exhibition by a group of black folks, calling themselves We Are Here. They felt it necessary to provide added prospective and context to the piece. He writes:
It felt great to confront the “white gaze,” the entitled buffoonery of the visitors. But why did we have to? Why did the organizers of We Are Here even have to do that work? Wasn’t the job of Walker or at least of Creative Time’s staff to curate a racially charged artwork? Yes, Walker has the freedom to express herself. Yes, Creative Time has the freedom to organize it. But what do you expect will happen if you put a giant sculpture of a nude black woman, as a Mammy no less, in a public space?
Powers makes some really strong points, however, I don’t know how I feel about his assertions that art – no matter how sensitive and painful – needs to be directed. Like Powers, my visit to the Walker exhibit had its problematic moments with white folks, albeit not as vocal. But just like the white folks who Powers accused of basically disrespecting the weighted history of the piece, my group of all black women patrons also took great delight in posing colorfully in front of and around several of the pieces in the exhibition, including the Mama Sphinx.
Yes, throughout the exhibit we laughed, plotted poses and executed them only slightly less better than what we had in envisioned in our heads. So based upon Powers’ logic, we too were being disrespectful. But we were writers, artists, an art gallery owner, world travelers, business women and all educated. And more importantly, we were black women. So what if, as women and descendants of enslaved black men and women, we see and experience this art on our own terms?
It was a question, which my group of girlfriends weighed in on heavily as we contemplated what we were about to see on our way inside the sugar factory. As we entered the factory for the first time, we were met with the faded text inscribed on the wall, which reads, “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.” If you ask me, there’s nothing subtle about the sign, as Walker pretty much laid out what we were going to see inside: an homage.
The exhibit is also a temporary monument to the unspoken and untaught history of the global sugar industry. It’s a monument to all the free labor it took to build that industry and how it harms and hurts the descendants of those laborers even to this day. A monument to the sugar cane plantations, which existed long ago, and even the ones that still prosper in places like the Dominican Republic. It’s a monument that could stand anywhere in this country where all the other monuments to history are kept. It’s just as important.
The first thing you notice upon entering the exhibit is the unmistakable stench of molasses and old unprocessed sugar from years ago, which lingered as thick in our nostrils as it did on the walls and on the concrete floors. The second thing is the Mammy Sphinx off in the distance, perched on all fours with her with full African lips, broad nose and handkerchief tied around her forehead. She smirks at you, however, you are too enthralled at her majesty to respond back right away. But you vow to her an answer – just as soon as you finish exploring the other spaces of the exhibit, including the four feet high brown sugar babies.
There were several of them. Their brown bodies carry the weight of the molasses and melting sugar in wicker baskets on their backs and chests. Their brown faces and arms, rubbed black from the soot of their labor, were melting, and their eyes were missing, which adds to the creepiness and overall sadness of the work. And yet, they too possessed Mammy Sphinx’s smirk.
“I think I want to take a selfie with him” I said, referring to the sugar baby with the biggest smirk of all.
The eyes of Florcy, owner of Vivant Art Collection, widened in excitement: “Girl, yes! That’s a great idea. Do it!”
It took three separate tries to get the shot we were going for, but it was perfect. He and I shared the same smile of familiarity and kinship, just like one shared between two black strangers in predominately white spaces. Florcy had some ideas as well for shots with more “expression” alongside our candied kin. So we went around the factory floor, taking smiling selfies in front of the smirking sugar babies and kneeling and praying in front of the disintegrated ones, which were broken into a pile on the ground.
We did this while watching white folks from the corner of our eyes, who glared at us in a mix of confusion and awkwardness. They stared at us closely. Some of whom looked downright shocked at how comfortable and intimate we were getting with the sugar babies. There was one woman whose glare was so distinct and angry that I managed to pick up her entire twisted face in my shot with one of the babies. Admittedly, the constant peering and exploration of our intentions was enough to make both of us feel uncomfortable, but whatever feeling we had to edit ourselves dissipated once we stepped in front of Mammy Sphinx.
I think it had something to do with the figa symbol she made with her left hand. Prior to coming, I understood the symbol to represent an obscenity for the female genitalia. Florcy, on the other hand, claimed that it is how the Portuguese say “f**k you.” However, an older white man, one half of a couple, interjected himself into our conversation to tell us that it was also a symbol of good luck in Brazil, where he and his wife had lived for many years. Despite his intrusion, it was an interesting addition to our thinking. Historically speaking, with its tropical conditions (and being the shortest distance from the western part of Africa), sugar cane slave plantations thrived in Portuguese-colonized Brazil, supplying the bulk of the fix to Europe’s sweet tooth. So perhaps it is both: A f**k you to the old factory and oligarch white supremacy in general, as well as a shout-out of good luck to the descendants, who still must exist and maneuver in these spaces.
Oh, and don’t forget a shout-out to black women. The curation statement on Creative Time’s website says that Mammy Sphinx is a hybrid of two racist stereotypes of black women: the caretaker of white families and the overly sexual black woman. The layers of possible nuances and hidden meanings in this exhibition exhilarated us, and it inspired us too. We wanted to leave our own message at this site. But what should we say?
Florcy wanted to stand in front of Mammy Sphinx’s tooted up booty and give the middle finger. It was a good idea, but in execution, it didn’t prove powerful enough. I suggested that we pay homage to another exploited black woman, Sarah Baartman, and twerk for our own pleasures in front of Mammy Sphinx. “It’s a reclamation as much as it is a diss,” I said reassuringly. Florcy liked the idea, however, the rest of our group didn’t feel comfortable. There was concern about jobs and appearances, but I suspected that underneath it all, there was a fear of what the gawking white folks might say and what they thought. So half of our group decided to split the difference and take a back shot – just like the girls on Instagram, YouTube and in music videos, whose own sugar is often misunderstood, misappropriated and flat-out objectified. It was our way of showing solidarity while drawing connections to the Mammy Sphinx and the other kinds of sugar babies throughout history.
We lined up in front of the Mammy Sphinx’s backside and tooted up our own. One of the more shy girlfriends assigned to photography duty lifted the camera and aimed, but before she could get a shot off, we found ourselves surrounded by a horde of peering white eyes, who too pointed their cameras and clicked away. They clicked away at us indiscriminately from all different angles. They didn’t ask permission or smile. They just took what little bit they wanted from us and then left.
It was disarming. But at the same time, it made sense: It wasn’t the art that intrigued them, but rather, our bodies – the few black bodies in this space. And all that time these white folks, who silently peered and gazed at us slyly from all corners of the warehouse, were waiting for us to react. They needed for us to do something in hopes of confirming their feelings or answering their own confusion – perhaps even to show them how exactly they should feel and react to the piece.
Suddenly standing, backs arched in front of and mimicking what was just sculpted sugar and Styrofoam with our real bodies felt like a form. We could choose to scream at them, defend and hide ourselves away from the gaze somewhere in the corner. Or, we could smirk and throw up our own figas to their intrusion. We chose the latter, and my only regret was that we didn’t twerk.
In an interview with Complex, Walker breaks down some of the subtleties of her politically charged exhibition. It is worth a read for those who truly desire a backstory to go along with their own personal exploration of the exhibition. Personally, I don’t think it needs one, no more than it needs place card instructions on how to properly interpret the piece, as the exhibit was a powerful read. And as for the white people who were present when I went, they responded exactly how they have always responded–horribly.
I think that outside of the actual physical installation, there was the performance art, which came from all of our interactions with the piece: how Florcy and I related to Mammy Sphinx and then decided to reclaim and embrace all of her glorious contradictions; how Nicholas Powers recoiled from her boldness and opted to get defensive and protective of her instead; and it is a performance of how white folks viewed and interacted with the exhibition, and with us, and all of this plays into the gentrified landscape of the outward Brooklyn community-at-large (if you plan to go see the exhibit, make sure to check out the view of the projects from the hole in the factory’s walls). The only real disappointment for me was that I couldn’t be a brown sugar baby on the wall to take it all in.