Experiencing Kara Walker: A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
As a black woman I am familiar with feeling out of place. So when I stood in a 20-minute queue, surrounded by a majority of white people and dangerously close bike lane to view the Kara Walker “Subtlety” piece — I tried to think less about the growing line of not black people and focused on the sun. I googled articles to prepare me for the massive sugar sculpture and viewed some of the most frightening moments I could ever imagine.
So when I researched #KaraWalkerDomino — I expected to see mounds of photos of white sugar sphinx with appreciating eyes and hands lifted in praise. I anticipated somber eyes and tears, so many tears the camera lens would be smudged with moisture. I was prepared to feel seen. Being a black woman is full time act of disappearing. I only appear on stage, or when I’m raising my child poorly, or when I am funny and nurturing other non-black bodies. The Kara Walker piece spoke the many roles of Black Women in America. Mammified and a**ed up. Naked and on display. Available and domineering. Larger than life and providing life. Open eyes, knowing pout and finger gestures where open palms dare to be. I took to the search engine, line still moving and a fire in my belly, thinking maybe 4,000 people on the opening night of this 80 tons sugar sculpture activated a social consciousness. I prepared my spirit to soar.
When I entered the building the brown bodies with baskets and melting hands led me to the white sculpture. My back began to ache before I realized I was tense and still holding my breath. My feet shuffled towards the towering bittersweet vision. As an artist (and a black woman) I was floored by several things: 1) The amount of people that visited an exhibit investigating slavery and subjected femininity. 2) The fact a woman of color insisted a discussion of slavery, racism, blackness, and black women bodies. 3) The demographic of those visiting the exhibit. 4) The sheer genius and gumption it must have taken to create the whitewashed perspective.
It was here, at the front of the figure that I watched people lean against the sugar sculpture. The “Do Not Touch” sign blaring from the front entrance, hugely ignored. People took pictures smiling wide in front of the sphinx, their arms on top of their waistband, accomplished. And the young tattooed blond girl with her sandals off and her toes circling in the grain of sugar. And the young woman attempting to lick the sugar baby’s face. And the young man with the lumberjack shirt climbing to the top of the sugar mound in front of the rear, his arms wide open like he conquered something. And… the stench of melting sugar won the battle. I exited swiftly. The air was more crisp than before. The sun was more bright. And my skin tingled with sadness. The dismissal of black art; the degradation of the black woman’s body; the easy jokes of sexual servitude accompanied by camera flashes, all stole my breath.
I walked into the exhibit feeling alone and I walked out of the exhibit feeling lonely. To be a parody and a parent. To be a black woman and pun.
It is here when I decide that I will bring my daughter next weekend. She should know how to arm herself against a world that never considers her skin, her ancestry, her people. She should know her body is always up for discussion, whether she initiates the conversation or not. She should know her pain will always be greeted with a whimsical patronizing hand.
She should know how to celebrate, defend and demand her own song and rich history be acknowledged and honored.
I was half way home, my car radio on silent, before I noticed there were no ants, roaches or rats to disturb Kara Walker’s sacred offering.
Interested in viewing the Kara Walker exhibit? Check out CreativeTime.org this July 4 will be the closing weekend for the exhibition at Brooklyn’s legendary Domino Sugar Factory.
Mahogany Browne is the author of several books including Swag & Dear Twitter: Love Letters Hashed Out On-line, recommended by Small Press Distribution & listed as About.com Best Poetry Books of 2010. Her journalism work has been published in magazines Uptown, KING, XXL, The Source, Canada’s The Word and UK’s MOBO. Browne’s poetry has been published in literary journals Pluck, Literary Bohemian, Bestiary, Manhattanville Review and Up The Staircase. Mahogany is the Poetry Program Director at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe & curates their famous Friday Night Slam. Find Browne on Twitter at @MoBrowne.