This is one of the most brilliant artworks that I have come across recently: A huge sugar-coated sphinx (35 tonnes of refined sugar) is the centerpiece of an installation/sculpture by the Afro-American artist Kara Walker, titled ‘The Marvelous Sugar Baby’.
The sphinx features the figure of a black African woman, surrounded by much smaller black statues of African children made of molasses and resin, holding what seems to be offerings. These kids are left to ‘melt’ and ‘smell bad’ over time, leaving a black trail that resembles blood. The sight of the melting kids, the strong smell of sweet and rotting sugar and the dark walls of the factory where the sphinx is installed all contribute to the creation of an anti-gesamtkunstwerk…one that cannot be fully digested without some reading and explanation, but such is the case with the vast majority of Contemporary Art, specially cause-related artworks.
The factory where the work is staged is an old one that is about to be demolished, namely the Domino Sugar Refining Plant in New York. In the XIX century, this factory accounted for half the sugar industry in the US, thanks to African slaves that worked under inhumane conditions. The factory continued to function following the abolition of slavery, but still, the working conditions were horrible, provoking protests in the year 2000, until it finally closed down. As she puts it, the artwork is “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.”
But the great thing about this artwork is that is does not employ the all-time-favorite contemporary art resource: the shock factor. There is definitely an immediate impact on the viewer, but then there are layers of meaning and diverse messages that require more engagement by the viewer before they finally ‘dawn’ on him/her. First, the sphinx is an ancient symbol. In Egypt, it’s a silent vigilant that has been there for millennia, watching, surviving, without being able to move or change. Such is the case with many ills of humankind, ones that only assume different forms over the ages, but never really end. The sphinx stands like a goddess, a sugar goddess served by the sweat and the blood of African slaves melting around her, but also a slave goddess that stands triumphant with the abolishing of slavery.
Then there is the contrast of having a black woman made of refined, white sugar. She is at once both pure and artificial, her bare breasts touching on ‘ebony’ sex fantasy filtered through the lens of a white aesthetic. In short: hypocrisy and racism hand-in-hand.
The relevance of this artwork transcends the dark history of the sugar industry in the US. People from so many different cultures and regions would be able to relate one way or another: think of all the victims of coffee and banana plantations in Latin America, tea in India and Ceylon, spices in the East Indies; to the end of the long list.
Sadly, New York still registers high rates of racial discrimination. Walker’s work is an outcry against the past and the present, as the US and Europe still stand on the wrong side of history, this time through outsourcing.