Sugar Can Unsweeten: My Kara Walker Exhibit Experience

My family comes from Barbados, a place that thrived for years from the mid 1600’s through the 1900's on the sugar industry.  Our carnival type celebration is called Crop Over and happens at the end of the sugar harvest season.  I’ve passed cane fields with people working in them since I was a child.  My mother bringing home stalks of sugar cane would incite excitement in my sister and I as if we were getting birthday presents for no reason.  My mother would hack the stalks into three to four inch pieces.  She would cut a T-shape into the top so that they could be separated into four pieces.  My sister and I would chew on each section sucking the sweet sugar juice out until each piece was dry.  We’d bop around with our pieces then go running back to my mother for refills.  My mother and father would both also take part in the sweet treat until the long stalk was gone.  As an adult, I have sipped on Barbados’ good sugar cane brandy.  Yet, behind all the joy of my memories of sugar is the history.  Barbados’ thriving sugar industry was run from plantations & slave labor.  The island at one point had about twelve plantations.  This is a tiny island which has a modern day population of only about two hundred and seventy-five hundred thousand people.


It is with all of this that I walked into the Kara Walker exhibit on June 22nd at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn.  A group organized a “We Are Here” event on that day for women of color to experience the art installation as a majority in the space.  I’d seen the articles filled with disrespectful selfies and group pictures that white people took of the sculpture’s body parts.  They took the time to get precise placement to look as if they were holding, groping or poking fun at the sphinx’s nakedness.  “We Are Here” served as a support for the myriad of feelings and experiences we may have in the space.  Art moves us. 


Once inside, the pungent smell of an old sugar factory seeps into my nostrils.  Then I started to see the little boys, made of candy, carrying baskets.  The exhibit has been open since May 10th.  Some of the boys were melting.  Some had collapsed and lay in shattered piles.  The decay of the candy sculptures was difficult for me to see.  It made me so sad to see them shattered on the floor in pieces and piles.  At one point I looked up and there it was, the huge sugar sphinx.  The sun was shining on her creating a glare.  She was a massive presence, wide and tall.  Still, I slowly made my way to visit many of the little boys first before getting to her.  I have to admit visual art often makes me feel like I’m not smart enough to discuss what the artist intended through the creation of it.  I mentioned this to some friends that I came with then decided to not worry about that and just experience it.


I peeked into their baskets.  I imagined them bringing her sweet treats.  I imagined them working for her in reverence.  I wondered about the babies that may have been strapped to their mothers as she worked the cane fields.  I marveled at the details and textures in the baskets themselves.  Something about the brown sugar sprinkled on the little boys heads made me smile at their sweet heads.  Then I end up in front of the massive white sugar sculpture.  I stared at the sugar and melting molasses like substance on the walls of the factory & thought about the way in which the past can endure.


I eventually end up right in front of her.  Her head wrap doesn’t make me thing of Mammy.  I think of the women I’ve passed working in cane fields with their heads wrapped much the same way to protect from the heat of the sun and catch their sweat.  I want to touch it.  I always want to touch art.  It’s always so textured and tempting.  This is no different.  But I don’t even want to get close enough to walk on the sugar at the ground spreading out from her.  I see the evidence of footprints telling me others did not feel this same deference.  I stay at the front and the side of her for quite some time.  I chatted with strangers and greeted friends as we took it all in.  Finally, I feel ready to walk to the back.


I’m standing back watching the crowd watch her.  I’m brought out of my people watching when a Black man announces loudly that before people take disrespectful pictures at the vulva of the sculpture they think about the very ideas that this installation are looking to make commentary about.  There was a group of people snapping pictures as he spoke.  They finished snapping quickly, awkwardly and scurried away.  But they made sure to get the picture of them by the sugar vulva.  Some people (of all colors) found his loud announcement to be disruptive to people having an individual experience of the art.  I felt better by him stating it out loud, myself.  Discussions started happening.  I think discussion is the point and is good.  


It is right around this point that a woman with a name tag that said Arden starts telling the man who made that announcement to make sure that people knew that he wasn’t connected to the company Creative Time.  He had on no badge, isn’t carrying a clipboard or anything else that identifies him to me to be an employee or even a volunteer at the event.  A woman starts recording Arden telling him this.  Arden doesn’t want to be recorded.  She grabs the woman who is recording her to stop her.  Arden then sends over two security guards (one of which isn’t even on duty in the space) to remove the woman for causing a “ruckus”.  There was no ruckus besides the one Arden caused by trying to have a woman of color removed from the exhibit.  Arden physically grabbed her.  The woman was talking.  She said she was going to file a police report.  Was that the ruckus Arden meant?  Several women of color, myself included, wanted clarity on what exactly was the ruckus because we had all been there and hadn’t seen any ruckus besides a woman of color being grabbed by a white woman at an exhibit about a part of brown history.  Arden became flustered and could not answer the questions well.


Everyone that I saw speaking to Arden were clearly upset but talking in calm tones with their inside voices and best vocabulary words.  I know that I have long since learned that no matter how rightfully upset that I am as a woman of color if I scream or yell, I automatically become in the wrong.  I automatically become to blame for being an “angry Black woman with attitude”.  Arden even completed the exchange with what I’ve seen called elsewhere as the “white girl Waaaaaaaaambulance”.  Yep, this is a part of racial discussions I know all too well: the white woman who starts crying and bemoaning her victimhood.  “I believe in this work more than anyone, I am here every single day,” says Arden.  She also wailed something to the affect of us all coming at her. 


Yes, Arden, we are coming at you with words, questions, and requests for clarity that you became way to flustered to give.  Sorry Arden, but you being at an art exhibit each day of it’s installation & run does not trump the reality I live everyday as a Black woman in this world.  You cannot and don’t have to care more than the women of color standing before you hurt at the wrongful ruckus you are orchestrating in this space.  Here we are now watching you exert the very privilege, which proves how little you have to care as a white woman.  You physically touched someone, and then called security to have THEM removed for causing a ruckus.  You work for Creative Time so security seemed very willing to take your word over hers.  Were there not a slew of women questioning you, you would have gotten away with it no questions asked.  I was so saddened to see this happening in this space at all but especially on the “We Are Here” day.  I am so very proud of the grace, intelligence and power that the women of color took in speaking up for each other.  We Are Here.