The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instagram Capital
waiting about 20 minutes in line, we were in. I assumed the Domino
Sugar Factory would smell like sweat and underpaid labor, so I was ready
to whip out a SARS mask. Alas, it was the sweetest saccharine smell. It
felt like a good hug from your favorite Sunday school teacher.
were here to see Kara Walker's public installation, "A Subtlety." As we
entered, we were instantly greeted by a series of sugar boys, some made
from resin, then covered in molasses, and others that were complete
taffy sculptures. And then I got a quick glimpse of the reason we were
all here: the enormous, sugar-coated sphinx at the center of the show. I
directed my attention back to another sugar boy. And then everything
I was sent this meme a few days ago and laughed hysterically.
this moment, however, I lost sight of all the humor. I stood in front
of a sugar boy carrying a huge basket oozing what began to look more
like blood than molasses. I looked to my right and a white kid was
licking one of the boys while his parents stood there unfazed. I walked
over to get a full-on, yet still-distant view of the giant sphinx. Two
seconds later, my eyes exploded and I was crying all over myself.
obviously didn't expect to start crying, but it happened and I let
those tears run free. I was snapped out of my sob by a white guy
yelling, "This is boring!" Tears for my ancestors turned into hot, angry
tears. It took everything in me to not walk over and clobber him to
pulled myself together and walked directly in front of the mammy-faced
sphinx and could not stop staring. It was the heaviest, literally and
figuratively, piece of artwork I'd ever seen. It suggested the damage
done to the West Indies, that have yet to recover, over the precious
sweetener. This white-colored woman with African features was speaking
directly to the refinement process—turning naturally brown sugar
white—and how it related to black folk and our own refinement process.
The exposed vulva conjured up emotions about the hypersexualization of
black women throughout America's early years; about the environmental
rape of Mother Africa and the West Indies.
in the midst of all of these feelings, I heard people yell "Sugar
tits!" "Hey, did you get a picture of the lips? Those sweet lips!" and
"That's a big ass!" Then came the photo ops, which ranged from the
Munch/Home Alone "Scream" face to sexually inappropriate. My head was spinning.
knew going into this that the black people in attendance would be in a
completely different headspace than the non-blacks. This show was
telling an American story, but using our face. A story that, save for a
few generations, would have us cast as main characters. But I hadn't
expected this. After storming out of the factory filled with I-just-saw-Roots-for-the-first-time black rage, I checked Instagram to survey the scene under the #karawalkerdomino tag. This was what I found.
Like a fool, I expected all adults involved to act like, I dunno, adults?
After a (well-meaning) white guy interrupted a libation ceremony at the Brooklyn Library's Henrietta Lacks celebration
two weeks ago, I'd gotten the sense that deep reverence may not be
white people's spiritual gift. But where's the respect? How do you not
realize that you are currently standing on sacred ground and staring the
sickness of our country dead in the face?
sure scholarly black folk would label this "white privilege," but I'm
not one to give big, fancy names and deep meanings to something that can
simply be interpreted as "bad behavior," "no home training," or what
the kids call having "no chill."
Colorlines recently posted an article titled, "The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art,"
which detailed the huge gap between black and white art patrons. The
lack of chill from that subsection of white people on Saturday shot my
mind back to this article. I wanted to know what white people think when
they engage with work from black artists, many of whose work ties
directly to their blackness.
with so many white people in the Domino Sugar Factory checking out "A
Subtlety," I couldn't help but wonder. Where did their interest lie? How
were they explaining these sculptures to their children? (If you
haven't gone yet, expect tons of babies running amok.) Hell, how were
they explaining it to themselves? Is stopping by Domino just the current
"it" thing to do in NYC? Were they leaving with a better understanding
of the existence of black people in this country?
Saturday's experience, I am feeling super overprotective of black
artists. I want to put my performance artist hat on and shroud every
piece of black work in the world with a drape and a sign, reading "For
mature and reverent eyes only. Disrespect will not be tolerated." As a
people, we are discounted, ignored, and mistreated on a daily basis by
this country. Can we at least protect that which holds our stories and
our legacy or are we left powerless like our forefathers when massa was
yelling for our mama's sweet lips and sugar tits? Oh.
heading back to Domino this Friday as soon as it opens to hopefully
have some time alone with "A Subtlety." I want to be able to love on her
without any distraction. By July 8th, she will be apart of our memory's
museum, but we are left with the knowledge that the women she
represents loved us. They prayed for us more than they prayed for
themselves. They endured subjugation and hard labor knowing that it
would birth opportunity for us. We are the fruits of an unshaken tree
that have no other option besides excellence. As I've said before,
only white people can change white people. I hope that some of the
offenders have an awakening on their own or via another viewer, but it's
not my job to do it for them. What I (and everyone else that had a
crappy experience at the show) must remember is that neither a tasteless
Instagram post nor a sex-laden comment yelled in that factory will take
away the richness of our history or the validity of our existence and
how sweet that is!
Watts, a proud graduate of Clark Atlanta University, works in fashion
but writing is her first love. Her quest to discover everything cool and
cheap below 14th Street and in Brooklyn is chronicled on her site, iso14below.com, where a version of this essay originally appeared.