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Behind the Inspiration and Construction of Kara Walker's 'A Subtlety'


Visual artist Kara Walker's latest work is housed in an abandoned sugar factory in Brooklyn, New York. In it, Walker created a huge sugar sphinx and a handful of statues as an ode to those whose labor has been exploited historically.

In this video, she explains how the idea for the sphinx came to her, and you'll get a behind the scenes look at how the marvelous creation was constructed. The work is on display until July 6.






She makes many great points in the video. Here are some of the highlights.

Kara Walker on her reputation:
Kara Walkers work deals with history. Embedded in that statement "Kara Walker deals with history" is this sort of desire for a hero who can fix this problem of our history and racism. And I don't think that my work is actually effectively dealing with history. I think that my work is kind of subsumed or consumed by history.

On the space:
It was such a cathedral to industry and such a cathedral to this one commodity. The whole product is predicated on this space being demolished at the run of the show.

On her research:
I had to learn about sugar in the process of trying of understanding this building. Sugar comes from sugar cane. Sugar cane is grown in tropical climates. Sugar cane is and has been harvested by slaves, underpaid workers, and children possibly. It's a fascinationg and very long history.

Why 'a subtlety'
In this book I was reading about the history of sugar, contemporaries describe something called the sugar subtlety. I love this term. A subtlety is a sugar sculpture made out of sugar paste, marzipan, fruits, and nuts that was sculpted to portray royalty and only could be consumed by royalty, nobility, clergy. A subtlety presents this opportunity to make a figure that could embrace many themes that is representative of power in and of itself.

I was grasping at too many different ideas that I wanted to bring into the piece. From ruins to a sugar subtlety allowed me to think about what sort of figure and what sort of position which she occupied. There was a moment of stepping back when I was like "What about a sphinx?" This is not an Egyptian sculpture. This is from the new world.
On the importance of the historical figure:
The mammy, although she's bent over in this gesture of supplication, I don't think she's there to be taken or satisfied and abused in any way. She's sort of withholding. I don't want to make her into a nonsexual caretaker of the city. She's powerful because she is so iconic, in a way, and she is so monumental and so unexpected. If I've done the job well then she deems the power by upsetting expectations one after the other. I think it's very important to look back. i don't think we do it often enough. I think sometimes looking back leads to a sort of depression and stasis which isn't good, but looking forward without any kind of deep historical feeling of connectedness is no good either.

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or

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