A Subtlety, Provocative Sugar Sculptures by Artist Kara Walker

I suddenly remembered Kara Walker’s installation of sugar sculptures last weekend and rushed to the Domino Sugar Refining Plant in Brooklyn to catch it.

Called 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, it left me a bit confused.

I knew the US didn’t grow sugarcane. What I didn’t know was that the Domino Sugar Refining Plant, which was built in 1856, was by 1870 processing 3 million pounds of sugar each day – more than half the sugar used in the U.S. – from sugar that was shipped there from around the world.

The plant, which is located on an 11-acre spread on the East River, and employed 4-5,000 people, ceased operation in 2004 and is now slated for demolition. Luxury residential units with spectacular waterfront views of Manhattan will sit in its place.

Walker, who is well known for her black cut-paper silhouettes, makes good use of the plant’s expansive space and 10-story high ceilings to construct the centerpiece of the exhibition: a massive 35-foot tall sphinx made from 4 tons of white sugar. Its face made me think of Aunt Jemima, its body a cat.

The other sculptures were of children – sugar-coated babies – toting straw baskets of the raw sweetener.

A Subtlety is thought provoking and smelly. The unmistakable aroma of carmelizing sugar, of cut sugar cane baking under a tropical sun took me back to my childhood on my family’s sugar cane farm. I left with more questions than answers. Several days later and I’m still processing the images I saw, the messages they conveyed to me.

A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby is on view weekends only until July 6 at the Domino Sugar Refining Plant, South 1st Street at Kent Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. It is free and open to the public. There was a line when we went on Sunday but it seemed to move quickly. Go early and take a hat to shade you from the sun.


Linking up this week with Travel Photo Thursday that Nancie organizes. Be sure to stop by to see other photos from locations around the world.

17 comments on “A Subtlety, Provocative Sugar Sculptures by Artist Kara Walker

  1. It is weird but wonderful. New York has such a range of artistic adventures happening at any one time. I guess that is what makes it New York. 🙂

  2. Oh, these are stunning pieces and to think that not only the eyes but the nose got a workout here. I love these kinds of things. Wish I were going to be in the area. As always, Marcia, a most interesting post.

  3. Amazing sculptures. Would love to see these. I guess the old sugar plant is going the way of many old structures — condos, for better or worse. About sugarcane, I thought that we grew it in Hawaii. Not much, but some. Will have to look that up.

  4. Wow, that is truly impressive, I wonder what prevents all the ants and other critters from devouring that esp in a hot environment.

  5. I grew up near Sugar Land, Texas — home to Imperial Sugar. The big sugar refinery there went out of business a long time ago, but no similar exhibition took place. I wonder if the artist molded this sugar statue or carved it.

  6. Wow, you meant to tell me the statue is made from white sugar?

    Who is Aunt Jemima, was she a real person or mythical character? because I’ve read the term ‘aunt Jemima’ to represent the female version of the derogatory label “Uncle Tom”…

  7. Yes, all the statues were made from sugar. Amazing, aren’t they?
    Aunt Jemima is a character used as a logo for a company that makes pancake mixes and pancake syrup, I think. Like Uncle Tom, it also has a negative connotation, which is why the sculpture was provocative and disturbing at the same time.

  8. I wondered that too, Michele. It might have been molded though I haven’t been able to confirm.
    So what apartment buildings take the place of Imperial Sugar?

  9. I agree, Brittany. I never even thought of sugar in that way but sugar sculptures have a long history. They were called subtleties, hence the name of the installation.

  10. You’re right, Cathy, sugar cane is still grown in Hawaii – I’d forgotten about that.
    The property is 11 acre – lots of space for condos with views of the East River and Manhattan. You can bet they’ll cost a pretty penny too.

  11. I didn’t either, Nancie. It was quite a surprise, especially since I see Domino sugar in the supermarkets all the time. I might even have some at home.

  12. Yes, that’s what makes being in New York so exciting and interesting, Jan. There’s something to suit every taste, you never lack for things to do and a lot of it is free.

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