What form does laughter take? Disturbing reactions to Kara Walker’s newest piece

Kyle Stoneman
September 24, 2014
Online Only

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.


1 Flannery O’connor, The Complete Stories Of Flannery O’connor. New York: Farrar, Straus And Giroux, 1971, P. 269.

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

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

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Kyle Stoneman