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What form does laughter take? Disturbing Reactions to Kara Walker’s Newest Piece

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Artificial Nigger,” Mr. Head and his grandson, Nelson, experience the operation of grace through the most unlikely of spiritual vehicles: a polychrome ‘plaster figure of a negro’ with one eye chipped ‘entirely white.’ This unexpected moment occurs when the duo is strolling through the streets of Atlanta and they pause to inspect this racist memorabilia. Confronted by its strange pathos they feel ‘as if they were faced with some great mystery, some monument to another’s victory that brought them together in their common defeat. They could both feel it dissolving their differences like an action of mercy.’ For Head this sinister commodity transcends its racist trappings to become a symbol not only of black pain in America but that of Christ’s suffering for humanity. Head instinctively feels this conflation but cannot express it. Nelson, also lacking the vocabulary to articulate his emotions, looks to his grandfather ‘to explain once and for all the mystery of existence’; but the old man buckles under the pressure and nervously blurts out a racist joke: ‘They ain’t got enough real ones here. They got to have an artificial one.’1

I was reminded of this incendiary title while glancing at last month’s reviews of Kara Walker’s installation, ‘A Subtlety: Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,’ not only because Walker inverts stereotypes for more elevated ends, but for the simple fact that so much of the controversy surrounding her recent work deals with the unforeseen and inappropriate responses of gallery audiences when confronted by racial imagery. More specifically, much of the discourse has objected to what has been perceived as the vicious laughter and insensitive conduct of primarily white viewers at the expense of a work that examines the legacies of slavery.

I should begin by stating the work’s full title: ‘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 Word on the Occasion of the Demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.’ It was commissioned by Creative Time and, as the title states, was shown at the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, a structure that is now destroyed. Walker’s project is not especially concerned with the history of the site; instead, it is invested more in the cultural connotations of the refining process and how that process is implicated in the value placed on whiteness in American society.

This latter point brings one to the striking whiteness of the most prominent sculpture in the installation, a large sugar-coated sphinx.

35 feet by 75 feet, burnished a brilliant white and glazed in refined sugar, this grotesque figure, with its exaggerated posterior and exposed, ten-foot vagina, is topped with an Aunt Jemima head. The sugary coating belies the fact that it is not manufactured entirely of sugar but is constructed of 330 blocks of white foam that were carved by a team of technicians and only then candied with a white veneer. At once monstrous and grand, there is something dignified about the figure that competes with its objectified anatomy and pose. For instance, the division between two polarized stereotypes – the sexless mammy and the fetishized African American woman – is here fused into a single figure. Endlessly slipping between racist icon and sign of protest and agency, it is more chimera than sphinx.

Surrounding the sphinx are fifteen statues of African boys cast in resin and covered in molasses, although some are cast in sugar or combination of both. Essentially, these figures are a study in miniature of the sphinx: a visual expression of the cannibalistic nature of slavery and the sugar trade. If viewers were uncertain on this latter point, the link between the black body as commodity and its cannibalistic consumption is made only too clear in the title: a ‘subtlety’ is an antiquated term for the sculptural confections once produced by chefs and served up on aristocratic tables. There’s a good deal of mirthless laughter baked into this modest proposal, to say the least.

Walker’s perverse delight in bad taste, visual puns, the taboo and the cheaply sentimental – all speak to her largely unexplored debt to Andy Warhol and her link to the history of ironic collecting. Robert Hobbs, for instance, has argued for the close associations between Walker’s work and the act of collecting racist memorabilia by African American artists, viewing it as a redemptive tool and form of cultural agency.2 Once more, the claim is justified but is made more obvious, as these figures are based upon cheap collectibles the artist located online and then enlarged.

Walker’s ironic enlistment of racist stereotypes and imagery is characteristic of her production and holds the key to its power: it is what makes her work so disturbing, awkwardly funny, and poignant. As might be expected, such a method usually courts controversy and is not without its detractors, the most notable example being artist Betye Saar, who publicly criticized the artist. This is nothing new. The recent outcry in Brooklyn began when viewers began making ribald jokes and gestures in front of the sculpture. Many viewers photographed themselves as they mocked and made light of the figure, feigning to lick, molest and on the whole violate the figure’s sexual parts. Naturally, this caused a good deal of outrage and was further inflamed, in part, by Creative Time’s invitation to visitors to photograph and publish their images on instagram using the hashtag #KaraWalkerDomino .

Unintended or not, the invitation allowed the gross spectacle from the gallery to continue online.

Who laughs? What form does this laughter take? And at what cost? – are some of the questions that arise from these photographs and the rude conduct in the gallery. Walker’s work can be funny, but its humour is not the humour of cackles or sniggers. She readily admits the sphinx is in some ways a visual pun. For example, the exaggerated ten-foot vagina represents the sexual availability and vulnerability of the black female body but it also becomes an empowered symbol, “mooning” the white male gaze. This was certainly not lost on some viewers, but the point seemed to have eluded others.

Nicholas Powers expressed concern at what he perceived as the uncontrolled snickering and irreverent flippancy shown by a privileged public. Powers saw the levity as being indicative of a prevalent insensitivity to the history of slavery in American and race in general. Powers was so incensed by the scene that he yelled at spectators. Describing the event in his article, ‘Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit,’ he writes:

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 for pornographic jokes.’

Reviewers such as Powers have suggested that Walker is responsible for creating a racist arena that was at variance with her own critique, a verdict I cannot agree with. I do, however, sympathize with his frustrations over certain curatorial choices.

For a start, Walker is no newcomer to the art world. Her more violent depictions have in the past caused some museums distress. For instance, the Detroit Institute of Art experienced a large outcry against the artist’s work in the 1990s, prompting the censorship alarm to sound. Gwendolyn Shaw notes a good deal of this previous drama was due to the fact that there is a resistance to ‘explanatory text’ when it comes to curating contemporary art, a stance ‘that is at odds with the middle-class art-viewing public, whose expectations of what constitutes a satisfactory cultural experience are decidedly different.’3 Textual labels might have proved vital in persuading people to adopt (at the very least to feign) a different attitude. It must be said that Creative Time did have gallery staff available for viewers to speak to and visitors were required to sign a waiver; however, I still cannot help but feel that the real absence of curatorial labels in the gallery seems rather neglectful, considering the artist and the content.

The exhibition calls for a critical investigation of how to discuss not only the complexity of female bodies, white privilege, and race in America but also how best to tackle these subjects within a museum setting. A prickly task. If anything, labels and other educational signposts might be advised. Otherwise, it seems that many museum visitors find themselves unintentionally reacting in the manner of O’Connor’s Mr. Head: grasping for the words to express something sublime and subtle before them.

1Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971, p. 269.

2See Robert Hobbs, Kara Walker: Slavery! Slavery! Washington, D.C.:International Arts & Artists, 2001, pp. 2-8.

3Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker, Durham and London:Duke University Press, 2004, 114.

 

 

 

 

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Kyle Stoneman is a PhD Candidate in History of Art at the University of Cambridge, researching relationships between writing and visual art in the work of Evelyn Waugh. He is currently a visiting lecturer at Middle Tennessee State University.

 

 

 

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The column: Picture politics

 

Cultural institutions – museum, galleries, studios – are often perceived as objective, rarefied, and irrelevant to contemporary political life. These spaces, however, have a great deal of power – in part because of their privileged position as ‘spaces apart’. This column curated by Anna Blair will explore different ways in which cultural institutions internationally engage with or deny political issues.

 


Kyle Stoneman finished his PhD in History of Art at the University of Cambridge, researching relationships between writing and visual art in the work of Evelyn Waugh. He is currently a visiting lecturer at Middle Tennessee State University.