Kara Walker‘s colossal, much-discussed work A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, commissioned by Creative Time and currently installed in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Refinery, has recently spawned some tasteless Instagram photos from people clearly missing the point of the work. Meant to serve as a commentary on the sugar cane trade, and a cultural critique of slavery and perceptions of black women throughout history, the work is part Sphinx, part racist Mammy stereotype, and is coated in sugar. It features exaggerated features including breasts, a bottom, and a vagina. As Walker told artnet News, “Nudity is a thing, apparently, that people have a problem with; not slavery, or racism, but female bodies, or bottoms.”
And sadly, she is correct. While few appear to have responded to the work with charges of indecency, some visitors have been unable to stop themselves from mocking and sexualizing the work, uploading photos pretending to cup its breasts or tongue its buttocks. This gross behavior has, understandably, struck a nerve with feminists and racial equality activists alike. Yesha Callahan of The Root writes, “History has shown us time and time again how a black woman’s body was (and sometimes still is) objectified. From the days of the slave trade to even having black butts on display in music videos, the black woman’s body seems to easily garner laughs and mockery, even if it’s made out of sugar.”
The problem is not with the work, which is clearly trying to put these very issues under fire, not perpetuate them. The problem is, foremost, with the intellectual lowest common denominator’s inability to deal maturely with something that might make them uncomfortable, choosing instead to turn it into a joke. This type of reaction is the very reason we need art projects like this one, that probe at our perceptions of race, gender, and sexual orientation—topics we often like to think are “no longer a problem,” but very clearly are.
However, Creative Time is not entirely blameless either. By publicizing an official hashtag, #KaraWalkerDomino, they have opened the door for this kind of infantile engagement. Granted, official hashtags are not an uncommon practice for art exhibitions and events, but for a controversial show addressing sensitive issues, the need and desire for it is confusing. It’s not exactly a work that’s suited for a lighthearted selfie. But, this is 2014, and we are often meant to feel that if we didn’t Instagram it, it didn’t happen. As Jamilah King of Colorlines writes, “Nearly everyone had their phone out and the Instagram hashtag #KaraWalkerDomino was filled with images of the exhibit… In that way, it was a deeply interactive exhibit, one as much about the present as the past.” In theory, this is what social media should be—a place to get the word out and get a dialogue going. Unfortunately, in this case it’s also become a reminder of how thoughtless people can be.
Kara Walker’s A Subtlety remains on view at the Domino Sugar Refinery through July 6.
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