One of my coworkers forwarded me Blake Gopnik’s Times article about Kara Walker’s sculpture “A Subtlety.” It looks an impressive work, and I’m eager to see it when it opens for public viewing: massive blocks of sugar carved to resemble sphynx who is wearing a bandana or handkerchief reminiscent of Aunt Jemima. Its subtitle, “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,” adds a layer of of historical context over the stereotypical depiction, indicating recognition of the monstrous conditions that went into the production of sugar and sweets during slavery — and before such production was industrialized. People who did this work, from the cane fields and boiling vats to the noxiously smokey kitchens, did it in horrid conditions, and calling attention to slavery’s central role in the sugar industry is welcome.
I also enjoy the material tension of the work: it’s only because sugar production has been fully industrialized that it is feasible to use it to fashion a sculpture on this scale; the removal of labor from the production process allows current sugar to stand in as a monument to the labor that produced past sugar; only through a cheapening of the raw material are we able to stand awestruck at the scope of this thing.
There is probably something to be said, as well, about the bleaching process used to make refined sugar white, but I’ll leave that for cleverer people.
(Rachel Laudan has written and talked a lot about how much toil goes into producing sugar and salt using pre-industrial methods, and if you are unfamiliar you should check her out; it may make you think twice about adding a dash of artisan sea salt and hand-produced demerara.)