Kara Walker’s sugar sphinx descended upon Brooklyn this summer, bringing well over 35 tons of sweetness to the cavernous darkness of the old Domino Sugar Factory. It’s the same abandoned, 11-acre refinery that’s set for total demolition later this year, a tear-down that will pave the way for condos, leaving behind one lone red brick building as memory of the 19th century fixture.
Walker, via the public art patron Creative Time, has managed to give the structure a summer send-off to remember. She packed in 15 resin-and-sugar statues — tiny characters with masterfully carved characteristics, that harken back to bygone eras, from Egyptian labor practices to medieval design to the 16th century Caribbean sugar trade to early African American history. Then, of course, there’s the sphinx. A massive, naked woman, perched in that familiar mythical stance, with a face reminiscent of the Mammie archetype. Much of the installation points back to America’s sugar slavery, and the decades of consumption that came before and after. The images contradict each other, pointing to vintage edible sugar sculptures (aka subtleties) of high society on the one hand, and the stereotypes we associate with “black memorabilia” and racist collectables on the other.