Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. AKA, a warehouse full of dissolving sugar children and a super sized snow-white mammy sphinx… With white people.
Outside, about a quarter-mile from the entrance, was a small sticker. It described the zeal with which the slave master found new ways to punish his property. The slaves. Who happen to be my ancestors.
I didn’t take a picture of it. I wish I had.
Inside the factory smelled like piss and antifreeze, except for where it smelled like garbage. The latter scent came from a small crack in the wall that overlooked the East River.
People must have thought that it was part of the exhibition the way they clustered around it. I don’t think it was, though. It was only a crack in the wall.
The babies. There were six or seven of them, all made of sugar and all dissolving into pools around their feet. They looked like the kinds of toys one might find in the back of a thrift shop, but much bigger. Cropped, kinky hair on oversized, idealized heads. A lot of them had baskets on their backs. Inside one was another head.
Did I say they were dissolving? The effect looked like tears sometimes, sometimes sweat, always blood. Sugar flesh fell from them in chunks. When they were too decayed to stand someone would kindly prop them against the wall.
The Sphinx took up almost half of the factory building. You’ve probably seen the pictures. A mammy rag crowning a face upon which every African feature had been exaggerated. Just like the old illustrations of Black women, except for her body which has become an Instagram legend. Here lies the most coveted white behind in all of Brooklyn.
As strange as the sugar babies and the giant, snow-white mammy sphinx were, they were nowhere near as strange as witnessing it all in front of a warehouse full of white people.
This piece is rooted in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, but slavery in the Americas can’t so easily be separated. It wasn’t over there, or over here, it was everywhere and interrelated.
I stood beside a white woman, both of us taking pictures of the same sugar child. And I wondered what she saw. Was she looking at the interplay of light and shadow, and admiring the bold use of sugar as a structural medium, or was she thinking of what happened back then, or over there… or did she see America. The America that we both share right now.
Two Asian women took pictures, one of them poking her tongue out and making a ‘V’ with her fingers. They got a pass. This wasn’t their history.
These guys though? Stretching your tongue to get the illusion of a taste of the sugary pussy? Tweaking the sugar nipples like radio dials? Just like the masters who were always looking for new ways to punish their captives, some of Subtlety’s visitors were innovators of Douche’baggery.
They get passes too. They just proved a point about the objectification of Black women and the larger inability of our society to deal with the legacy of slavery.
Were they shocking? Nah… I’ve seen a whole lot of assholes do a whole lot of things in Museums. People talk about how alcohol is a truth serum, but they under-estimate the power of boredom to make a person show his or her true nature.
But where did I fit in? I took this picture of my wife. You might not be able to tell, but her shirt calls for Reparations for 400 years of Slavery.
It didn’t end that long ago. My great-grandfather was someone’s property. Then there was Jim Crow, and then just plain old discrimination and bias.
We are still in the shadow of the African holocaust, and we might always be. After all, not too many people talk about race anymore. A lot of white people don’t even see color. And, somewhere along the way, the word, “racism” has superseded slurs and outright violence in terms social un acceptability.
This was the first exhibition that I’ve ever been to, that directly addressed the legacy of slavery. It took its visitors and put them inside of it, garbage smell, sticky floors, decay and discomfort.
What you see is what you get, including people acting like disconnected dicks because they can’t, won’t, or don’t give enough of a fuck to process it. And here I am, just two generations removed from it, made of the same industrial material as the sugar babies.