Badass of the Day: Kara Walker

by Brittany Allen

Visual artist Kara Walker – an epic, epic person, for those of you who don’t already know – is currently at work on a new piece in Brooklyn. In a departure from her typically 2D projects, Walker has taken over the ground floor of the abandoned Domino sugar factory in Williamsburg. All to build this:


This 75 foot tall sphinx – coated in a thick layer of donated Domino’s sugar – is titled (in true Walker fashion): “A Subtlety: 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.” The piece operates on multiple levels; it lampoons the antebellum “Mammy” motif, just as its size and situation demonstrate a reclamation of power. Walker explained her choice of materials in a recent New York Times profile, saying “Sugar crystallizes something in our American Soul. It is emblematic of all Industrial Processes. And of the idea of becoming white. White Being equated with pure and ‘true,’ it takes a lot of energy to turn brown things into white things. A lot of pressure.”

Walker is perhaps best known for her haunting silhouettes, which are often preoccupied with the American slavery narrative. The artist often traffics in irony and juxtaposition: while her images are rendered in the kitschiest of the pre-daguerrotype styles, her scenes are all about violence. Take this grim example, from her 1994 piece “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart”:


Walker has said that “most [of her] pieces have to do with exchanges of power, attempts to steal power away from others.” Yet her work is doubly notable because it’s as stylistically precise as it is daring.

May 10th through July 6th, “A Subtlety” will be open to the public. And whatever your drothers may be re: provocative art, Walker’s new direction – heck, all of her directions – are exciting things to note and study and SEE, if one has the chance. 

Images courtesy of, Art-Nerd and WetCanvas, respectively. 

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