This is the second part of a two-part post about my thoughts and reactions to artist Kara Walker's "A Subtlety", which recently finished it's run at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg.
There she was. A combination of an iconic ancient achievement, more recent historical racist and misogynistic imagery, and Walker's artistry--a gigantic "Sphinx-turned-Mammy", laid before us between the load bearing steel beams holding up the factory.
She looked imprisoned from certain angles. Flanked by those enormous bars, it was as if this entire space was actually a cell block on display for our enjoyment, attendees gawking at this defiantly regal prisoner. It brought to mind the racist tones of the fictional King Kong, a beast chained to a stage for the audience to "Ooh" and "Ahh" at, our privileged positions as educated art lovers and socially conscious citizens convincing us that we were simply "appreciating" what's on display. However, we all could have very easily turned Walker's work into a farcical flavor of the week by falsely believing that society has moved beyond the behavior and consequences of our recent ancestors. We could have been (depending on how you want to view it) either reinforcing some sort of evil or destroying some sort of compassion.
Or I'm overthinking it. That's what was so powerful about this exhibit for me: it provoked so many feelings at once that it became difficult to separate what I was feeling and why. In that space with that exhibit at that time, everything I thought and felt became so mish-mashed that I'm still not sure if I'll ever straighten it out.
Let's be clear, though--this was a very large piece of art that required vision, craftsmanship, and planning. The fact that it could be constructed and maintained over several weeks of stifling New York City heat was amazing. Additionally, she ingeniously combined some of the most iconic and upsetting imagery in African and African-American history into a single, biting statement piece, something in which all of us could instantly recognize the powerful contradictions. I was (and still am) in awe of Walker's artistry and ability to incorporate so many visual signals into a cohesive symbol.
But then, those signals did exactly what they were supposed to do. They brought to mind the exploitation, violence, misplaced contempt, and brutality that African-Americans and other people of color have suffered throughout the history of the United States in the name of profit, superiority, and divine directive. Slavery, Jim Crow, The Trail of Tears, "Assimilation", Yellow Terror, Nativism, anti-Union, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, etc.--people of color have never not been a target of hatred and paranoia by the majority and establishment. And it's not just "white people" (a term so vague and fluid that quotation marks are necessary) that are guilty of these acts; people of color have committed hate crimes against each other, too. We're all guilty, just some more so than others and with some attempting to make amends more than others. It's tragic. It's traumatic. It's a part of our shared history.
And it was on display before us, her white, sugary skin glimmering in the sunlight.
The Sphinx laid there, head held high, her large and exaggerated breasts resting in between her cat-like arms. Trying to figure out how to take photos of the sphinx created an uncomfortable feeling for me. Getting too close seemed disrespectful to the work, and it also put you in the temporary spotlight since most of the crowd was also keeping a decent distance away. But if I didn't get close enough, I would have missed some very interesting angles and photographs of the work. I decided to stay low to the ground and get as far in front of the group as possible without angering the volunteers from Creative Time.
However, other's did not seem as shy as I was, moving toward the front of the Sphinx to take selfies or pose with friends and family for photos. Just as with the molasses statues of slave children, people were smiling and looking very happy to be in front of the giant sugar sculpture. I can't say that it was upsetting at the time; I would characterize my initial reaction as confused or puzzled. At least no one was mocking the naked figure or making obscene gestures while I was there. In retrospect, that seems like a pretty low standard of behavior to expect from adults. At best they weren't acting like juvenile racists? Hmm.
I made my way to the back of the sphinx where her prominent backside, exaggerated vulva, and almost childlike feet were positioned. The crowd in this area seemed more...scandalized? But with that giddy, middle school whisper lingering in the air. To be blunt, they were acting like they've never seen a vagina before or what comes with it. The men in particular did little to hide their snickering. One group of three men, around their mid-20s gleefully took a picture with the Sphinx's backside, their arms in the air and big grins on their faces. It clearly made some of the other attendees uncomfortable, but before any one could say anything (or could work up the courage to confront these strangers), they were finished and walking toward the exit. After they moved, a white father took a smiling photo with his black teenage daughter in the same spot the three men had just been. The daughter looked uncomfortable but dutifully posed for the picture. A Creative Time volunteer leaned against one of the steel beams, making sure no one stepped on the surrounding sugar scattered at the feet of the Sphinx. I took my photos and moved on.
I circled back around toward the front of the Sphinx, wanting to get a few more shots of her face. The neatly tied kerchief wrapped around her head brought to mind the character Mammy from "Gone with the Wind", played by Hattie McDaniel. McDaniel won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, the first African-American to ever win an Oscar...Scarlett O'Hara's loyal servant. On one hand, it was a major accomplishment to be recognized by the Academy. On the other hand, the recognition was because she so accurately played into the stereotype that white culture expected blacks to emulate. As a modern viewer, the irony is enhanced by presenter Fay Banter's speech that implied that McDaniel's nomination, "enables us to embrace the whole of America...and pays tribute to those who have given their best regardless of creed, race, or color." She sounds so earnest in her belief as she reads the words, that she truly believes this will change everything. What was even more moving was McDaniel's acceptance speech. It was a chance to hear the actress behind the roll speak confidently and with grace about winning the award. No Mammy kerchief, no servants clothes draping her frame, as she tells the Academy that she, "sincerely hopes that [she] will always be a credit to [her] race."
I'm not trying to take away from McDaniel's accomplishments. It's difficult to be a female person of color today, I can't imagine what she had to endure personally and professionally to become successful in her field when Jim Crow still ruled the land and Brown v. Board was still over a decade away. However, the similarities in how people have reacted to McDaniel's performance and how we have reacted to Walker's exhibit can't be ignored.
We're so proud and self-congratulatory on how much progress we've made, that things are really going to be different now because we get it. But how well have we really done if the kerchief around McDaniel's head in 1940 and the kerchief adorning the Sphinx in 2014 can both still be met with such casual acceptance, as such an easily identifiable marker of a racist caricature? If we have progressed so greatly, why can't we shake the Mammy symbolism and all that comes with it from our collective cultural iconography? Is it because we don't want to, don't care to, or don't feel the need to? How many generations will it take before someone can stand before the kerchiefed Sphinx and say, "I don't know what that means"? Or is the most crucial step the one that comes before that: when a person stands before that same image and can't bring himself to smile or pose or jovially take a photo because he both understands and empathizes with what that symbol means, appreciating the history, context, and painfully thorough degradation of human beings that the kerchief represents.
Perhaps this is the most unsettling aspect of Walker's exhibit, that she forces us to think about how far we actually have come if all of these images can still come to embody so much pain and suffering but be met with such casual indifference, or worse yet, pleasure.
They're in the process of taking apart the Sphinx and sugar slave children, it's sweet aroma undoubtedly wafting down the East River and into the bay.