Many recognize Kara Walker's The Subtlety as a fascinating sphinx built in the image of a "Mammy" like caricature. The sphinx, which is made of sugar, is successful in that it's jarring. It makes people want to pay attention or at least ask questions. Her explanations spark discussions about the horrors of the sugar industry - described as, "blood sugar"- in the 18th century.
Yet even in this framework, Walker's sphinx is counterintuitive. Though Walker states that the sphinx is meant to pay "homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans," it does the opposite by embracing caricatures as their representation.After viewing the sphinx in person African American new media artist Christina Long wrote,
"...from a distance I feel like I can relate to their work and what they're trying to develop, then in person, I realize the entire project is created in a way that excludes me from the conversation- the sphinx is just a big Venus Hottentot, naked for the world to consume, literally as woman and food- and it never moves past this representation or tries to challenge this idea...because I took the object personally as a representation of Black American women of a voluptuous history, I left feeling that I was the Sphinx, completely voiceless and above all, in all my physical enormity, INVISIBLE. [Sic]"
While Jamilah King of Colorlines praised the sphinx, she also noted that it, "uncomfortably, reintroduces the slave as spectacle."
As Walker notes, the display is intentionally uncomfortable and filled with several conflicts. The history of the extravagant sugar sculptures called subtleties, that were bolstered through slave labor is very important. Furthermore, featuring the genitalia of the sphinx can be viewed as taking a jab at the presumed asexuality of the Mammy caricature, while also perhaps conjuring images of both sexual abuse and desire. It's crude and perhaps it's meant to be.
Yet, the sphinx pigeonholes the artisans and participates in the further denial of their right to an authentic presence in history.
While the display highlights oppression, it reinforces the longevity of oppressive modules by undervaluing the multi-layered dimensions of African descendants' identity within and outside of bondage.
Additionally, a silencing is occurring which is discouraging critical discourse of the sphinx and bolstering bandwagonism. In media coverage of The Subtlety, there is a mass assumption that the display successfully conveys messaging concerning Black women's identities, bodies and sexualities. There is almost no questioning as to whether or not this structure is truly "marvelous" or just massive.
I raise these issues not to advocate "respectability" art or censorship but to highlight the difficulties in attempting to honor while recycling systematic racialized fabrications. At some point in the adoration of art we have to realize the agency of the people we're discussing and recognize the totality of their human experience.
However, this issue is deeper than Kara Walker's work. This issue speaks to the internalized limitations of imagination among artists and writers when it comes to the lived experience of African descended people. Lingering onto falsehoods, attempting to manipulate structures in its honor is often representative of an internalized glass ceiling of thought.
We keep coming back to something that was never truly us.
This is not a suggestion to ignore the history of the Mammy caricature but instead an interest in what the sphinx would have looked like if Walker went beyond the restraints of this fabled being when it comes to examining the lives of enslaved African descendants.
The symbolism of this piece is stifled by its unsubstantiated distortion and unoriginality as it misses the opportunity to unearth what's often hidden. In this case it would be the Black woman undistorted, without the need of leaning on identity stripping myths for significance or shock value. We can be both beautiful in our nakedness and whole in our humanity while also critiquing disturbing histories.
The original version of this article was published on OurLegaci.com.