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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Kara Walker's mammy sphinx reflects her Stone Mountain roots

Kara Walker's monumental Subtlety
  • Twitter/screenshot
  • Kara Walker's monumental Subtlety

It's rare that fine art enters the national conversation or becomes fodder for pop culture as quickly as Kara Walker's latest epic installation. Contrary to the title, the former Atlantan's visual homage to New World slave labor and its complexly sweet-and-sour aftertaste, A Subtlety, Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby seems to have punctuated the race dialogue with a decisive exclamation point - followed by a string of question marks for the range of interpretations.

A 75-foot long, 35-foot high "mammy sphinx" covered in 80 40 tons of refined (i.e. white) sugar sits in the 132-year-old Domino Sugar plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where it will soon be demolished. With images being tweeted en masse of the sculpture's exaggerated pose (including exposed hind parts and protruding vulva), Aunt Jemima head rag, full lips and broad nose, Sugar Baby has been disseminated far beyond the steel columns that seem to "cage her" in, as suggested by Roberta Smith of the New York Times. It's equal parts provocative and perverse, condemning and redeeming.

Known for using silhouette caricatures to create cycloramic installations that depict the raw, ribald reality of the antebellum South, Walker's personal history with the region started in Atlanta, where she also received her BFA from Atlanta College of Art in 1991.

In a 2012 video interview with lalulula.tv, Walker talked about the influence of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, as well as what it meant to move from California at age 13 to the South, and particularly Stone Mountain where the Confederate memorial carving loomed large:

Stone Mountain Confederacy memorial
  • YouTube/screenshot
  • Stone Mountain Confederacy memorial

"When we moved from California to Georgia, I know that I was having nightmares about moving to the South. The South is a place loaded with mythology, but it's also a reality of viciousness. And it was such a frightening prospect to be on the borderline between child and teenager, and going into an environment where black kids are being targeted.

Stone Mountain, Ga., this is where I did most of my growing up. It's like a Mt. Rushmore type of thing of the Confederate heroes that is pretty significant. Stone Mountain was a haven for the Ku Klux Klan, so that place had a little bit more resonance. It was just so in-your-face, there was no real hiding the fact. What black stands for in white America and what white stands for in black America are all loaded with our deepest psychological perversions and fears and longings."

The 2012 interview concludes with Walker summing up her artistic intentions:

"Everything I'm doing is trying to skirt the line between fiction and reality. It's not just an examination of race relations in America today, I mean, that's a part of it. That's part of being an African-American woman artist. But it's about how do you make representations of your world given what you've been given."

Walker gave an in-depth interview to Complex about the current exhibit that's worth a read. In case you're in Williamsburg over the summer, the exhibit runs through July 6.

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