Susan Sermoneta, "Domino Sugar Factory: Kara Walker's sugar sculpture," Flickr image
Essay

Death and Life in Kara Walker's Public Art Interventions

by Nicholas Gamso

Kara Walker, A Sublety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014), a project of Creative Time installed at the Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, BK. Photo by Jason Wyche.

At the center of Kara Walker’s 2014 installation A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, at the shuttered Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was an imposing, 35-foot Sphinx.  [1] The figure was carved from polystyrene and coated in white Domino sugar. All about her body stood soft resin casts of children, posed with baskets in hand and bales slung over shoulder. The defining medium—more than forty tons of sugar in all—oozed from the melting resin figures and pooled on the refinery’s floor, its sickly scent pervading the space. The sugar had been donated by Domino, a company which has definite origins in the Atlantic slave trade, and which, according to NGO watchdogs, continues to use cane grown by enslaved persons. [2] The refinery itself, built in 1856 (and rebuilt after a fire in 1882), was one of the largest and most productive refineries in the world, sourcing sugarcane from throughout the southern US and Caribbean and employing thousands of on-site laborers before it closed in 2004. 

The refinery was and remains an exemplary artifact of urban racial capitalism in America, having connected the plantation economy of the south to the industrial economy of the north, thus underwriting a subsequent century-and-a-half of economic speculation. [3] Walker’s installation thematized this continuity, making reference not just to enslavement, but to industrial production, domestic labor, and postindustrial fortunes—art, finance, real estate, philanthropy. The work did not simply mark demolition of the refinery, in other words, but facilitated the site’s conversion into a citadel of neoliberal political economy. Now the site has become a gleaming complex of luxury apartment towers and offices, the hull of the refinery’s central building transformed into to an airy glass atrium and its grounds turned into a sprawling park and waterfront. The whole thing was financed with three billion dollars of corporate money: Creative Time, the curatorial agency that sponsored Walker’s show at the Domino refinery, was chaired by real estate scion Jed Walentas, CEO of Two Trees Management Company, which purchased the Domino site in 2012. Walker’s work put a spotlight on these obvious ulterior motives. Its 130,000 attendees stood waiting in line outside the refinery on Kent Avenue, witness to the astonishing transformation to the Williamsburg and Greenpoint waterfronts (the crown jewel of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s East River renaissance). [4]

In referring to these transformations, Walker sought to thematize the predatory logics of the creative economy. Her work called attention to a model of public art philanthropy that whitewashes commercial redevelopment by reanimating urban spaces and conducting stirring scenes of encounter and witness. While many viewers were moved by the solemnity of Walker’s sphinx, others treated the work as a kind of tourist attraction. Some audience members even made light of the figure’s exposed buttocks, breasts, and vulva—taking suggestive selfies and posting them on social media. By goading spectators to enact such cruelties (Walker would later take credit for “putting a giant 10-foot vagina in the world”), the work provoked expressions of complicity that reproduce racial difference as an object of frenzied urban consumption. [5] In Amber Jamilla Musser’s words, these aspects of Walker’s work generated “a feeling of emotional abuse”: the sense among many Black viewers was one of exploitation; they were subject to torment so that others (white spectators) could project feelings of amusement, fascination, and empathy. 

The irony was not lost on certain audience members, however, who rebuffed jocular behavior and mounted supplementary creative projects. [6] A group of Black artists planned to fill the space with people of color for an afternoon so that participants could “experience the event as a majority.” The organizers of the action, called #wearehere, observed that the exhibit was set in a neighborhood “that continues to experience a deep physical and mental erasure of recent history” (referring to the rate of minority displacement). [7] #wearehere was a chance “to reflect on this history before the old factory space is replaced by high rises.” [8] A liberal vision of diverse cultural economy had been superficially evident in the fact that Walker—perhaps the most prominent Black artist in America—had won the commission. Yet when this vision was shown to be something of a fantasy, a community formed to salvage the work’s potential. 

 

The completed Domino Park, with the Refinery's central building in the background. Photo by Barrett Doherty, courtesy of Two Trees.

Living as Form

Subtleties of race and gender have long underwritten the promise of life in urban theory. Modernist social critics were fixated on the life-worlds of minority communities—both the metabolic processes of city organization (the Chicago school’s conception of biotic “human ecology”) and the idealized non-event of everyday experience, exemplified by the writings of Jane Jacobs and her acolytes. In a well-known metaphor for city life, Jacobs envisions a darkened field burning with fires, each of which “extends its radiance into the surrounding murk,” and in this way “carves out a space”: “Where the murk between the lights become deep and indefinable and shapeless,” Jacobs writes, “the only way to give it form or structure is to kindle new fires in the murk or sufficiently enlarge the nearest existing fires.” [9]  Jacobs sees those who sit about the fire as a community forged in the dynamic act of living, rather than in the domineering administrative paradigms of industrial modernity. While she does not describe the image using the specifics of race, class, or gender, her writing often appeals to the vibrancy of Black and immigrant neighborhoods as well as to gendered spaces—most famously New York’s Washington Square Park, frequented by young mothers and nannies who lived and worked in adjacent households—as grounds where such potentiality might be located. [10] 

Liberal city planners, place-makers, curators, and social practitioners have alluded to Jacobs’ ideas by attempting to source the texture of neighborhood life, to reproduce the choreography of the crowded city sidewalk, and to channel the garrulous social worlds that convene on stoops and fire escapes. It is widely believed that these lively conditions are also the most economically productive and politically stable social forms. Jacobs herself described this prospect as the result of what she saw as a major historical transformation from a global “plantation economy” that extracts goods and immiserates workers to a liberal urban economy characterized by cultivating “creativity” and “human capital”—indeed by “calling up the powers and resources of life.” [11]  This statement resonates with the progressive claims of contemporary “post-racial” city administrators, who deny their cities’ historical debts to the financial windfalls of enslavement, indenture, and disinvestment. [12] So does it seem in keeping with attempts by artists to source the vitality and exuberance of minority and low-income communities. In the words of Tavia Nyong’o, A Subtlety turned on the idea that “artists are urban trailblazers,” even that contemporary art generates a dynamic life-world, “shifting the atmospherics of a given postindustrial locale from dreary to lively, from boring or dangerous to exciting, and, most often, from dark to light.” [13] 

In bringing to life the disused space of the refinery, A Subtlety offered a critical variant of what the work’s curator, Creative Time artistic director Nato Thompson, has called “living as form.” [14] Like many of the public art installations employed to complement and enliven city spaces, Walker’s work exhibited a “collaborative and participatory spirit.” Yet Walker’s work also seemed to imply that terms like “participation” and “collaboration” operate primarily as euphemisms for the forces of collective labor already at work within a capitalist economy—from industrial manufacturing, associated with the history of the refinery building, to the kinds of gendered social reproduction that sustain workers’ very lives. [15] A Subtlety’s central figures—an enslaved woman and her children—prompted its audience to reflect upon the ways that race and gender play into the production of individual and collective life: Whose labor supports and maintains the life of an economy, a community, or a city? Whose work makes possible the scene of sharing that characterizes popular liberal imaginaries? 

Walker went so far as to suggest that A Subtlety was performing an act of surrogacy. She drew connections between the life-world of gentrifying urban space and the life-giving, reproductive processes of Black women’s labor. (The work’s extended title refers to “the unpaid and overworked Artisans who refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World.”) [16] It was the figure of the naked sphinx, around which Walker assembled her audience, that ultimately elucidated this connection. [17] The sphinx evoked what Hortense Spillers has termed the “hieroglyphics of flesh”—the centrality of black women’s bodies to racial capitalism as it is lived and performed in the contemporary: “The captive body,” in Spillers’s account, “brings into focus a gathering of social realties as well as a metaphor for value so thoroughly interwoven in their literal and figurative emphasis that distinctions become useless.” [18] These features of A Subtlety focused viewers’ attention around questions of sensuality, pleasure, and indeed violation—yet also the prospect of new life, born under the violent conditions of enslavement but capable of resisting or transforming those conditions. [19]

Walker’s work thus calls us to reflect on the abuses as well as the possibilities of (re)productive labor in the context of contemporary city life. Actions such as #wearehere demonstrate ways of overcoming subjection, stripping social activities of their utility to power. There always remains another way of doing and making, these actions suggest, even if it has to be recovered from within the workings of urban modernity. For Walker herself, this dialectical prospect emerges not just from the work’s external actors, but via their engagement with the sensuous mix of aesthetic effects produced by its central object: “To only look at the underbelly and the blood,” Walker observes, “elicits vengeful angry feelings, but not necessarily art that I would want to look at or make. To have the other side of it means that I could bring these two opposing universes together, and I think that they’re percolating in me in different forms anyway.” [20] While A Subtlety is clearly an allegory for iterative racial capitalism, in other words, the alchemy of forces that animates the artwork is, in the end, uncontrollable. The work does not simply document a history, but conducts, shapes, and transforms the impress of history on contemporary urban space. 

Kara Walker's Katastwóf Karavan (2017) installed on Algiers Point in New Orleans as part of Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp. Photo by Alex Marks.

Many Rivers to Cross

A Subtlety proceeds in a brutal, at times unforgiving manner. Yet as Walker suggests, there is a degree of pleasure which surfaces, defying critical language and urging others’ reparative social activities. The effect is what Amber Jamilla Musser calls a “sensual excess” characterized by insatiability and the prospect of self-creation. Such excess is a sign of a life that may be reclaimed. Walker’s more recent site-specific public work The Katastwóf Karavan, installed in New Orleans in 2018 (part of the city’s Prospect.4 triennial), could be said to divine a related kind of vitality—collective and residual—from the historical groundwork of the urban environment itself. 

The Karavan comprises a covered trail wagon containing a 38-note, steam-powered calliope. During the Karavan’s installation in New Orleans, the calliope was connected to a keyboard where composer and jazz pianist Jason Moran played a mix of spirituals, soul music, and modern protest songs (the list included Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry”). The calliope is enclosed on its sides with Walker’s silhouettes—cut into steel plates and painted a funereal black—which frame and expose the pipes as they release built-up steam. On one broad side of the wagon, the silhouette shows a man and a young girl with braids, carrying a slack cadaver as another figure bears down from above, suspended from hanging vines, to pluck out its bloody heart. On the other side, a family is shown walking across a swampland in shackles, while three slavers (they appear to be children) are stacked atop each other’s shoulders, the highest wielding a lash. Drooping cypress trees form a proscenium about the macabre cutouts. 

Walker built the contraption with a team of fabricators and shipped it to New Orleans. It was installed on Algiers Point, a promontory on the Western bank of the Mississippi river. The grassy plain where the calliope stood is the grounds of an eighteenth-century structure where enslaved Africans, from modern Senegal and the Gambia, were penned before being sold across the river in the French Quarter (the greater parish of Algiers was also home to plantations, a slaughterhouse, and the city’s gunpowder magazine). The surreal history of the site—an inter-zone where the lives of individual persons were formally stripped of their social designations, such as names, geographies, and family bonds, and transformed into commodities—stands as a reactive ground for alternating visions of refusal, resignation, and ambivalence, conditions that reflect varieties of experience of personhood in the protracted social contexts of incarceration and social death. [21] 

Historian Walter Johnson describes these wayward conditions—what he calls “the interstices of the slave-pen routine”—as a realm where comportment could become resistance: “As the traders instructed them in how to represent themselves as salable, the slaves learned about slaveholders’ system of slave-buying signs; as the buyers looked them over and asked about the prospects held by a given sale. Each step in commodification was also a step in perception.” [22] The latent prospect of subverting the unspoken rules of the slave market, where life in its various guises is brokered, defined, advertised, finds an analog in the inarticulable excess, the strange mix of terror and resistance, that Walker’s work produces and which she summons from the city’s sunken groundwork.

Like A Subtlety, the Karavan provided Walker with an opportunity to venture beyond paper cutouts as well as to leave behind museum space, engaging the spheres of production, social geography, and vernacular craft. These choices have direct thematic connections: a “subtlety” refers to an ornate confection set atop a cake, its charm obscuring a worldly complex of trade, agriculture, finance, and gendered labor. The steam calliope is no less peculiar. Walker conceived the Karavan after hearing the keen of a calliope emanating from a nearby riverboat, the Natchez—a morbid replica of nineteenth century vessels and a popular tourist attraction. [23]  The sound, in Walker’s words, conveyed the “wistfulness that some southern whites would regard slavery or those bygone days, not just for the control or the power but the intimacy of what those enslaved people’s bodies meant to theirs—mind, body, soul.” She describes the feeling as “so unsavory you can’t speak it.” [24] Such inarticulable excess is one effect that life itself, in its ethereal yet self-evident qualities, excretes under the relentless brutalities of slavery.

In A Subtlety, these two manifestations of life—productive and perverse—are married in the singular figure of the Sugar Baby. But in Katastwóf Karavan, the violence committed against history’s victims is transmuted into a baleful sonic atmosphere. The calliope’s whistle mingles with the sound of docking steamboats and murmuring river water. 

New Orleans is a city full of spectral encounters. Graves jut over the muddy grounds of the city’s cemeteries, mourning rites animate the street, landscapes are haunted by the ghosts of colonial genocide. In Clyde Woods’s celebrated account of music in New Orleans culture, written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he remarks that the city concentrated the “constant presence of a parallel world populated by ancestors and deities, the sun as a personal being, cosmograms, and centrality of the crossroads or cross—expressed as birth, life, death, and rebirth.” [25] 

Walker is of course aware that such a play of life and death can be reduced, commodified, marshaled in order to drive the city’s economy, attracting tourists to the grounds of plantations, auction blocks, as well as the city’s celebrated saint days and festivals. Certainly the commodification of heritage is a strong part of New Orleans’ civic and commercial culture. Yet in the case of Algiers Point, the evocation of lives which are written out of civic history could also be said to challenge the ways that history is reduced to an easy, touristic fascination—and even to question the city’s resilience in the face of terminal social abandonment (implicitly questioning the role of Prospect.4 triennial in absorbing these conditions).

The Karavan draws this tension out of the urban sensorium, spoiling deceptive tableaux of southern grandeur with the sounds that such deceptions invariably fail to suppress. The songs that Moran plays on the calliope’s keyboard are songs of refusal and subversion—part of what Woods calls a “song movement that traveled in both directions over the fifteen-foot walls of the auction houses.” [26] These songs express not the romance of poverty but an “irrepressible will, its indestructibility, and its malleability”—the life which continues to persist within the unfolding disaster of Atlantic modernity (Walker’s title Katastwóf is borrowed from a Haitian Creole word for catastrophe). The wistfulness of a nostalgia for southern good-old-days cannot be erased, in other words. But neither can the prospect of resistance.

Steam emanating from the calliope inside Walker's Katastwóf Karavan as Jason Moran plays an attached keyboard. Photo by Alex Marks.

What Remains

Walker’s work in New Orleans could be said to address some of the questions she posed in Brooklyn: What can contemporary art do to reckon with its links to racial capitalism? How might expressions of Black life and life-giving persist in the context of social death? Can the logics of predatory neoliberal urbanism be challenged, or at least endured, through covert actions and vernacular social forms? 

As if to answer these difficult questions, Walker names the exigency which drove her to create Katastwóf Karavan. In an artist’s statement, she laments a legacy of “evictions, floods, soggy infrastructure, and the constant drunken reminder that forgetting is preferable to remembering.” New Orleans’ insistence on remembering its links to Africa, to an indigenous heritage (Natchez is the name of a local tribe), to the extended Caribbean, and its transmutation of its legacy into song—these comprise “the nearest thing to beauty this forced history has brought us.” What Walker calls the “nearest thing to beauty” is a trace of life that remains illegible to markets and thus inoperative to power—and not because modern economics has dissolved a “plantation mentality” (contrary to what Jacobs tells us, the plantation and its fortunes retain their hold on the logics of urban administration). Yet sensuous possibilities press through even the most atrocious social and political conditions, continuing, as life itself continues, via the subtleties of creative resistance. 


Notes

 [1] Thank you to Kara Walker for granting image permissions. Thank you, also, to Monica Truong of Sikkema Jenkins & Co. for generous assistance; to Alexis Bard Johnson, who curated the Geballe Research Workshop at Stanford University where a version of this paper was presented; to Peggy Phelan, Michael Kahan, and Margaret Ramírez for guidance and conversation around creative urbanism; and to Kandice Chuh, Claire Bishop, and Tavia Nyong’o, who closely engaged my thinking about A Subtlety for a 2017 article in Social Text, “Kara Walker Answer the Urban Question.” I am especially grateful for the insights of students in the course “Art, Gentrification, & Intersectional Racial Politics” which I taught at Stanford in 2019.
[2] On contemporary enslavement and sugar production, including Domino, see Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. The University of California Press, 1999, pp. 127-141. 
[3] On the history of racial capitalism, see Robinson, Cedric. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. The University of North Carolina Press, 1983. As it pertains to debt and housing markets, see Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. Race for profit: how banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Home Ownership. The University of North Carolina Press, 2019.
[4] Boucher, Biran. “Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx Draws 130k Visitors, Up To 10k/Day.” Art in America, July 10, 2014. artnews.com/art-in-america/features/kara-walkers-sugar-sphinx-draws-130k-visitors-up-to-10kday-59812/.
[5] Corbett, Rachel. “Kara Walker Secretly Filmed You Taking Selfies in Front of Her Sphinx.” New York Magazine, November 19, 2014. https://www.vulture.com/2014/11/kara-walker-filmed-you-in-front-of-her-sphinx.htm.
[6] See for example Powers, Nicholas. “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit.” Indypendent, June 30, 2014. indypendent.org/2014/06/30/why-i-yelled-kara-walker-exhibit.
[7] By 2014, New York’s liberal development regime was widely acknowledged to exacerbate inequalities and displace minority residents. Williamsburg lost a quarter of its Latinx population between 2000 and 2010. See “How New York's Racial Makeup Has Changed Since 2000.” New York Times, December 14, 2010. archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/12/14/nyregion/census-graphic-ny.html.
[8] For the full project statement, see https://weareherekwe.tumblr.com/. 
[9] Jacobs, Jane. Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Vintage, 1961, p. 376.
[10] Robert Moses famously referred to Jacobs and her acolytes—who had succeeded in preventing him from building a freeway through Washington Square—as “nobody but a bunch of mothers.” Indeed Jacobs’ work emphasized the utility of dense urban fabric to women and children. For a discussion of gender and protest against Moses’ freeway in Washington Square, see Avila, Eric. The Folklore of the Freeway: Race and Revolt in the Modernist City. University of Minnesota Press, 2014, pp. 53-88.
[11] Jacobs, Jane. “The End of the Plantation Age.” Vital Little Plans: Short Works of Jane Jacobs, edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring. Random House, 2016, p. 442.
[12] Michael Bloomberg’s city planning director Amanda Burden famously remarked that the administration’s goal was to “Build like [Robert] Moses with [Jane] Jacobs in mind.” See Burden, Amanda. “Jane Jacob, Robert Moses, and City Planning Today.” Gotham Gazette, November 6, 2006. https://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/development/3402-jane-jacobs-robert-moses-and-city-planning-today.
[13] Nyong’o, Tavia. Afrofabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life. NYU Press, 2018, p. 118.
[14] Thompson, Nato. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art, 1991-2012. The MIT Press, 2012, p. 29.
[15] For an extended exploration of participation and production see Collectivism after Modernism, edited by Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
[16] The subtitle of Walker’s work specifies that it is “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.”
[17] Musser has put the work in counterpoint with Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde (1866), Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), and Mickalene Thomas’s Origin of the Universe 1 (2012)—works that foreground the vulva as a metaphor for creation. Thomas’s work, like Walker’s, makes note of the unspoken racial biases that subtend this idea and which often (as in Courbet and Chicago) efface Black female sexuality and reproduction. See Musser, Sensual Excess, p. 46.
[18] See Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics vol. 17, no. 2, 1987, pp. 64–81. See also Ansfield, Bench. “Still Submerged: The Unthinkability of Urban Redevelopment.” Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, edited by Katherine McKittrick, Duke University Press, 2013, p. 128. Ansfield describes urban development regimes in which “residents’ bodies and places serve as the ground for visions” of what Ansfield describes as “purification and redemption.” 
[19] See on the subject of enslavement and motherhood, Philip, M. NourbeSe. “The Ga(s)p.” Poetics and Precarity, edited by Christianne Miller and Myung Mi Kim. SUNY Press, 2018, p. 35.
[20] Quoted in Abumrad, Jad. “Live from the NYPL.” Metrofocus, June 18, 2014. www.thirteen.org /metrofocus/2014/06/subtleties-kara-walkers-domino-sugar-sculpture/.
[21] “Social death” refers to a loss of social and political standing, whether through through enslavement, statelessness, or exclusionary definitions of humanity. For a summary of key positions on social death and the prospect of recovery, specifically in the context of enslavement and Atlantic culture, see Helton, Laura, et al. “The Question of Recovery: An Introduction.” Social Text, vol. 33, no. 4 (125), 2015, pp. 1-18.
[22] Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Harvard University Press, 2009, p. 171.
[23] “A replica of its nineteenth-century ancestors, the Natchez does harbor cruises, weddings, and special events. In 1988, when New Orleans hosted the Republican National Convention, nominee George H.W. Bush and family made their triumphant arrival aboard the vessel.” Each day the Calliope plays a series of songs including “Old Man River” and “Dixie.” See Mitter, Siddhartha. “Carnival of the grotesque.” Village Voice, March 9, 2018.
[24] “Sending Out A Signal: Kara Walker & Jason Moran.” Art 21: Extended Play, October 31, 2018.
[25] Woods, Clyde. Development Drowned and Reborn: The Blues and Bourbon Restorations in Post-Katrina New Orleans. Edited by Laura Pulido and Jordan T. Camp. University of Georgia Press, 2017, p. 33.
[26] Woods, Development Drowned and Reborn, p. 35. 

Nicholas Gamso's picture

Nicholas Gamso was a Creative Cities fellow from 2018-2019 and now teaches at the San Francisco Art Institute. Nick is the author of Art After Liberalism (Columbia, 2021).