During a recent visit to the Radcliffe Institute, the internationally acclaimed artist Kara Walker made a surprising admission for someone whose bold, provocative work has had such a broad impact.
She confided to a room full of Harvard students gathered for an informal discussion—a warm-up for her talk later that afternoon in a packed Knafel Center—that she considers herself a “reluctant activist.”
The artist and professor of art at Columbia University was in Cambridge to talk about her most recent creation, 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 work, a massive sculptural synthesis of a sphinx and a “mammy,” was crafted from Styrofoam and sugar in what was once one of the world’s largest sugar manufacturers: the sprawling Domino refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. During its six-week run, the installation, commissioned by the public art group Creative Time, garnered rave reviews and challenged more than 130,000 visitors with complex themes of race, gender, power, sex, desire, and slavery. The creation was just the latest in a series of controversial projects undertaken by Walker in her relatively brief career.
Artistic blood runs in the Walker family. Her father, the accomplished painter Larry Walker, would cradle his young daughter in his lap while he worked in his garage studio in California in the early 1970s. Walker knew then, watching her father draw, that she wanted to be an artist too. She thought she would more or less follow his path. But while the elder Walker’s work is aesthetically bold, it is rarely explicitly political. Kara Walker would take a different direction.
She told the students that she gradually realized while in college in Atlanta—and later, while a master’s candidate at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)—that “there were issues in my life that I actually couldn’t ignore anymore, and that the ignoring—the ignorance—was a piece of this problem.” She characterized her attitude toward racial issues as “willful blindness” and decided to explore her own stance and “embrace that, in a way.”
At RISD, Walker experimented with different media—drawing, typing, scribbling things down—all in search of “a nugget, a system, an image within a system that could get to narratives, slavery narratives, fictions, dirty jokes, things that happened, situations that I should have had better control over, foolishness and wisdom, all of that.”
Eventually she found a powerful artistic vehicle in silhouettes: large-scale paper cutout installations, vivid black images pasted on a stark white background. Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart premiered in 1994 at the Drawing Center in New York three months after she graduated from RISD. The 50-foot-long, 13-foot-high mural depicted startling scenes of the antebellum South, including graphic images of slavery and sexual subjugation. Inspired by minstrel shows, film, paintings, romance novels, and sentimental fictions, the silhouettes made her an overnight star.
Controversy followed her success. In 1997, the year Walker, at the age of 28, became one of the youngest recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship, the artist Betye Saar led a letter-writing campaign asserting that Walker’s art reinforced negative African American stereotypes. More recently a Walker drawing on display in the Newark Public Library in New Jersey was briefly covered after members of the staff complained about its jarring imagery.
The artist is the first to admit that her work walks a fine line. During her lunchtime chat with students, Walker addressed reactions to her productions, including the critique that she enabled those who snapped themselves posing suggestively with her sugar sphinx to reenact historical violence on African American women’s bodies, turning the sphinx back into a slave.
“That’s the problem with all the work that I have done, I think, so far: it does kind of sit on the line between enabling and exposing, and kind of does it with relish,” she said.
Walker said her initial reaction on being asked to create a public artwork in the cavernous defunct sugar factory was “probably not.” But the team at Creative Time persuaded her to look at the space. The building, with its molasses oozing “up from the floor, down from the ceiling, across the pillars,” hooked Walker while simultaneously throwing her into a creative tailspin.
She began to look closely at sugar—its production, its producers, its byproducts, and its difficult, complex history, along with the powerful feelings it inspires. Walker mentally juxtaposed unprocessed brown cane, refined white crystals, a craving for sweetness, and the making of sugar with enslaved Africans—excluded, oppressed, commodified, destroyed under slavery. She mused further about the equation of brown bodies with molasses and demeaning attitudes toward black women’s bodies.
Walker’s visit to Radcliffe was planned long before her sugar sphinx even began to take shape. Dean Lizabeth Cohen had seen Walker’s work in Minneapolis several years before and found it “stunning, provocative, and memorable.”
“When I became dean of Radcliffe and had the opportunity to invite people to come speak here,” said Cohen, “she was at the top of the list.”
Colleen Walsh is a staff writer for the Harvard Gazette.