“Where are the ants?”
It’s Mother’s Day. My mother has come to New York to spend the weekend with me, her only child. After a rooftop brunch, I insist that we swing through the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y., to see Kara Walker’s latest art exhibit, “A Subtlety” (or “The Marvelous Sugar Baby”). I’m especially eager to see it on opening weekend, when it’s fresh (and before the masses see it and all the think pieces are written that will undoubtedly alter my perception), and I also want to see how my mom, not so much an art lover, reacts to it.
Walker, who is best-known for using her art to explore race, gender and sexuality, doesn’t disappoint. Her newest work, currently on display at the Domino Sugar Factory, is a modern-day sphinx in the image of a black woman. The “sugar sphinx,” as I’ve taken to calling her, wears a head scarf tied like a mammy and is replete with an ample bosom and the unmistakably black features of a wide nose, full lips and—the part that’s been getting all the social media attention—a gigantic butt.
I’d read up on Walker’s “Marvelous Sugar Baby” prior to showing up. The critics offered commentary on the roles enslaved black folks played in creating white wealth via the sugar trade and white delight through the consumption of sugar, once considered a delicacy. (At one point, it was fashionable for wealthy Europeans to flaunt their money by having figures created out of sugar, “subtleties,” as their table displays.)
There was plenty of talk about refining sugar, which takes something brown and makes it white, and how the process extends beyond sugar—most notably in the given setting of the gentrified neighborhood where this artwork is displayed. There was chatter about the meaning behind the gesture of the sphinx’s left hand—a thumb tucked between the index and middle fingers: Did it mean fertility or “good luck” or “f—k you”?
But none of those things are what I think of when walking into the massive warehouse and laying eyes on the 35-foot display. For all of the other things that she’s supposed to represent, no one discussed the power she evokes. I immediately like what I’m seeing.
Black women often complain of being overlooked, and here this one takes center stage, forcing herself to be noticed by sheer scope and size. The sugar sphinx looms large, an imposing figure over the (mostly white) spectators gathered around her, taking selfies or posing with friends in front of her cleavage. The image reminds me of all those pictures I’ve seen of tourists milling about the Great Sphinx of Giza—how, in comparison to the size and girth of the sculpture, people look like ants.
Speaking of which, my mother: “No, seriously. There are no ants?” she asks again. Standing in front of around 40 tons of sugar, according to a tour guide, and my mother is looking at the ground, searching for them.
“Do you have any idea of the pesticides we’re breathing?” she asks. The tour guide intervenes to explain that yes, the warehouse has been “treated,” but we are all safe. She looks at him like he’s stupid.
Finally we make our way around to the much-photographed back of the statue. On a typical sphinx, usually male (at least the Egyptian ones I’m used to seeing), the figure is sitting and all the action is in the front. But in Walker’s version, the hind parts are tooted up high, revealing heart-shaped buttocks and a large vulva—a “sweet spot,” if you will.
I look at it, then at all the (mostly white) people with their smartphones enthusiastically photographing “it,” specifically the butt. I don’t want to think of the Hottentot Venus because I don’t think every black body that’s displayed should be compared or reduced to the 19th-century kidnapped South African woman who was forced to be on display as some sort of amusement.
That comparison seems too convenient, but it’s what I think of anyway. Here’s a(nother) big, black booty on display, and here are (mostly white) folks gawking at it, some even posing with it. Walker must have seen this one coming, but I wonder why none of the reviews I read caught it. Maybe the cluelessness of the white audience’s participation in a spectacle without knowing they’re part of it is an inside joke for black folks to laugh and shake their heads at history unintentionally repeating itself. (This happens when a black woman and I catch each other’s eyes as a man bends over in front of the sphinx to mimic its pose.)
I want to argue that sometimes folks aren’t gawking but celebrating … right? And I’m staring at this big, black—well, actually white—butt, wondering which category the sugar sphinx falls into, when my mother interrupts again. We’re back to ants—or, er, pesticides.
“You shouldn’t stay in here too long,” my mother cautions. “I don’t believe it’s safe.” She walks toward the exit. I follow her without arriving at an answer to my question. I’ve mulled it over and been back to the exhibit again and still don’t have an answer.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life and the upcoming Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter.