Inside Kara Walker's Art Exhibit at the Domino Sugar Factory
Artist Kara Walker
“Just thinking about the labor that goes into producing sugar—from the places where it grows fastest to the incredible amount of steam and energy and power that it takes to extract the crystal and powder out of the juice—I think it’s really beautiful. Beautiful and troubling,” says Walker. Read the full interview with Kara Walker.
The centerpiece of Walker’s show is an enormous sugar-coated sphinx with exaggerated features including a “strong, serious face” partially inspired by the packaging of Aunt Dinah’s molasses.
The Raw Material
Domino donated 160,000 pounds of sugar for the installation. When F&W visited, much of it was still on pallets.
The defunct factory is massive, with windows that let in eerie light throughout.
The Story Behind the Sphinx
The sphinx has several reference points, including a 1920s or ’30s historical campaign that Walker read about in Clinging to Mammy: It was “to erect a memorial to the mammy of the South, the mammy who raised the great people of whatever town. And I thought, after the [sphinx] head went on: This is that, that super messy, complicated wish to honor something so degrading…suggesting the desire to honor something that can’t or shouldn’t be appreciated.”
Building the Sphinx
“Initially, I made a sort of laughing sphinx out of clay and eventually she morphed and I felt that she had to be more of a woman—in keeping with the Giza sphinx but also the Greek Sphinx who has questions and guards the gates and has these massive breasts and imposing face, and is unmistakably female."
The sphinx stands nearly 40 feet tall and more than 75 feet long. “Working in three dimensions is something I haven’t done much of. Even the handful of sculptural objects I’ve made, which are quite small, have been transferred from paper cutouts so they’re trying to be dimensional but always reduced to flatness.”
Surfaces throughout the factory are coated in decades’ worth of built-up sugar syrup, a byproduct of white sugar. “There are still labor issues, and class and culture issues, but it’s so connected to American history and Caribbean history and black history and how we think of ourselves as scruffy people who have the possibility of becoming refined, it’s a very idealistic weird stuff."
The attendants to the viewers are sugar statues, lollipops, molded after figurines that Walker found online: “What’s upsetting and disturbing and funny all at once is the presence of these ubiquitous home decor objects that look like slave boys, like little children who are laboring carrying bananas, baskets, and willing and supplicating to the owner of the object. They’re [currently] mass produced somewhere.”
Each statue stands five feet tall and weighs around 400 pounds. Walker first envisioned the pieces as translucent, but the final versions are caramelized and as dark as the molasses that drips through the space: “Molasses is meant to retain this association with plantation life and with slavery and by extension with its brownness and blackness. It still is used as feed for cattle. In a way it was a happy accident that these boy figures turned super dark.”
These mass-produced figures served as scale models for the sugar statues.
Some statues proved impossible to cast in sugar (they would have broken apart at the ankles). Walker’s team developed a look-alike polyester resin for these, then coated the statues in sugar and molasses.
A Repurposed Gadget
Walker’s team used turkey fryers to heat the sugar syrup.
The hot syrup was poured into molds to create the statues. “They can’t be eaten because we had to put a polyurethane coating on the surface, otherwise they would be gone before we opened. I’m a little worried about that because they are still candy and look pretty tempting.”
Pools of Sugar
Walker’s team found standing pools of sugar-water throughout the factory. The industrial setting is also part of the show. “It’s probably really helpful to just know what you’re eating and where it’s coming from anyway. That’s the thing about sugar changing the taste of the world—it changed the taste of the starving world. It wasn’t just something tasty. It gave people energy to work more, in factories and so on.”
Every crevice in the Domino factory seems to be filled with sugar.