WILLIAMSBURG — Artist Kara Walker’s much-anticipated public art exhibition in the Domino Sugar Factory opens Saturday, just days before the City Council is expected to grant final approval to the site’s development project.
Walker's sculpture, a massive sphinx-like figure, is made of 330 polystyrene blocks, coated by hand in 80 tons of sugar. The work is titled, “At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: 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”.
The figure is more than 75 feet long and 35 feet high, and the features of its face evoke a stereotypical image of a female slave, with a handkerchief around her head. The sculpture is made of processed white sugar, however, bringing into focus the connection between sugar manufacturing and the history of slavery, since the refining process turns sugar from brown to white.
“I am extremely haunted by the work,” said Nato Thompson, the project’s curator, “so I am hoping that same kind of alluring freak-outness translates to broad audiences. It's meant to be provocative.”
The sphinx is accompanied by fifteen five-foot-high sculptures of young boys, arrayed in a procession leading to her. Although the figure is modeled after the sphinxes of Greek and Egyptian mythology, the title of the piece refers to intricate sugar sculptures, called subtleties, that were served to European aristocrats during the Middle Ages. This reference also suggests the race and class dynamics inherent in the production and consumption of sugar throughout history.
Walker is best known for her paper silhouettes and tableaus on narratives of power, sexuality and repression. Thompson said that although the form of this new piece is a significant departure from her previous work, Walker's themes remain constant.
“We reached out to Kara because of two reasons: the first being we had been trying to get her to sign on to a public artwork for many years. And the second being, the obvious historic connections between her work and the site,” Thompson said.
When asked what he hoped viewers would take away from the exhibition, Thompson said, "So many things, ranging from a love of art to a skeptical relationship to power. It is a complicated monument, after all."
The exhibition has been under construction for nearly two months, with a production team of more than 30 people. The timing of its opening coincides with the final vote on the Domino development project, which is scheduled to take place at the City Council meeting on Wednesday.
The Domino Sugar Factory project, which involves the construction of new residential and commercial towers at the former factory site, was approved last month by the City Council's land use committee. The approval all but guarantees a green light for the development, will also include 537,000 square feet of affordable housing.
Lisa Kim, Cultural Affairs Director at Two Trees Management, the development firm behind the project, said the company supports the exhibition, since it provides the public an opportunity to visit the old factory space, in addition to viewing the art.
“The Domino Sugar factory is certainly a site that many people would want to get into and have access to,” she said. “It wasn’t a site that was safe to access before. It was full of years of sugar and molasses coating the floor. It wasn’t ready for people to come in to see and explore.”
Jed Walentas, a principal at Two Trees Management, is also a member of the executive board of Creative Time, the public art nonprofit behind Kara Walker’s project. Ann Pasternak, the group’s president and artistic director, reached out to him about putting together a public art show in the Domino space.
“Watching Kara Walkerʼs work come to life in the unadorned, expansive space of the Domino factory, with its molasses-covered walls and natural light, has been one of the most amazing aesthetic experiences I have had," Pasternak said in a statement.
"Creative Time commissions art that engages the critical issues of our day, and with 'A Subtlety' we are proud to be presenting one that is certain to spark important conversations on topics including race, labor, power, and much more,” she added.
The exhibition is free and open to the public beginning May 10 at noon. It will be open Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m., as well as Saturday and Sundays from 12 to 6 p.m. until it closes July 6.