Face Of The Day

Large Scale Sugar-Coated Sculpture Displayed In Brooklyn's Former Domino Sugar Refinery

Kara Walker, whose work often deals with racial stereotypes, explains the thought process behind her 75-foot-long sugar sphinx, which is on display at the former Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn:

I started with a lot of sketches; each sketch went from very minimal gestures to this maximal output with all kinds of moving parts. It came to embody something I would never want to see, something that was about slavery and industry and sugar and fat and wastelessness. It was a kind of finger-wagging gloom-and-doom kind of sketch that embodied all of the themes about industrialization that the space contains: post-industrial America, the grandiose gesture of the industrialists, and sugar as the first kind of agro-business.

For example, you can’t get sugar without heavy-duty processing; you don’t get refined sugar, you get other things. This desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white and how that dovetails into becoming an American were fascinating to me. Sugar is loaded with meaning, with stories about meaning.

Charlotte Burns provides more background on the artwork and significance of its location:

At its peak, the factory was the largest sugar refinery in the world. By 1870, it was producing more than half the sugar consumed in America, and in 1896, the American Sugar Refining Company, which operated the plant, was one of the first 12 companies listed on the Dow Jones.

The sugar trade created a triangular economy: slaves were sold from Africa to the Americas; sugar to New England; and then rum made from molasses was sold back to Africa. “Sugar brought about a new kind of world structure: diets changed, the way business was done changed, there was a rise of the importation of enslaved Africans,” Walker says. The full title of the installation makes this history explicit: 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 World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

More images of the sculpture and how it was built here.

(Photo: People view Kara Walker’s ‘A Subtlety,’ a sphinx made partially of bleached sugar on display at the former Domino Sugar Refinery in the Williamsburg neighborhood of the Brooklyn on May 10, 2014. The show opened Saturday, is free to the public, and will run until July 6. By Andrew Burton/Getty Images)