A Subtlety, or 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 on the Occasion of the Demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant
2014, polystyrene coated in sugar
Kara Walker, American born 1969
A work recalling the history of sugar agriculture: the ‘white gold’ of slavery.
A history whose slave ropes coil downwards to this moment: its frayed threads needled through the fabric of our lives today.
Photo by Jason Wyche © Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., N.Y. published in the New York Times in June 2019
On display in a Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, NY which was demolished after this exhibition to be converted (much of it) into condominiums.
Photo from the net
The Domino Sugar factory was once owned by the Havermeyers, one of whose scions, Henry Havermeyer, was a large benefactor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
The work takes the features of a stereotypical ‘black mammy’ in a kerchief.
Photo from the net
Aunt Jemima, based on a racist stereotype, dates to a minstrel song of the late 19th century.
Nostalgia for the antebellum South.
The image was translated into a television series in the middle of the 20th century. It is very widely known in the USA from advertising media of all kinds.
The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, 1972, wood, cotton, plastic, metal, acrylic paint, printed paper and fabric.
Betye Saar, American born 1926.
UC Berkley Art Museum on loan to Brooklyn Museum in 2018/19
It took until the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, MN on May 25, 2020 for many people to acknowledge that Aunt Jemima – and other – symbols pertaining to African and native American history are racist.
The New Jemima , 1964, 1970, acrylic on fabric over plywood construction.
Joe Overstreet, 1933-2019, American.
The Menil Collection, Houston whose photo this is.
Since 2011 it is PepsiCo, one of our great purveyors of sugar in all its forms, who has owned Quaker Oats, (founded 1889) pancake mix and syrup.
One of the modernized incarnations of Quaker Oats’ depiction of Aunt Jemima. Image from the New York Times, June 2020
Over the years, PepsiCo and the prior owners of Quaker Oats hoped that modernizing the image of Aunt Jemima would sufficiently occlude the memory of her origins.
Occlude the memory of her origins. The North American origins of a whole people.
It took PepsiCo until mid-June, 2020, after a widely shared expose on TikTok of Aunt Jemima’s history
to remove Aunt Jemima from its marketing and packaging of Quaker Oats.
Liberate (25 mammies), 2015, mixed media assemblage.
Bettye Saar, American born 1926
Courtesty of the artist and Roberts projects, Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Brian Forrest. Published in ArtNews in June 2020
Sugar continues to be grown in the United States. Not to speak of consumed in vast quantities.
African American farmers continue to suffer discrimination in lending by the US Government by way of banks for sugar as for other farming.
This despite the largest recorded settlement in history by the US Government to African Americans for such historical discrimination.
One such history of discrimination has devastated the life of a young couple, descendants of African American sugar farmers.
They have been unable these last few years to farm their ancestral plot in Florida which had long been farmed for sugar by their family.
They were denied the habitual loans extended to farmers.
Their house has been foreclosed. White farmers have taken over their plot.
Their story was included in the documentary (audio and written), 1619: a history of slavery and its far-reaching consequences. Nikole Hannah-Jones, its author, won a Pulitzer prize for Commentary in 2019:
1619 being the 400th anniversary of the enforced transplantation of Africans onto North American soil.
President Trump called (September 6, 2020) for the defunding of schools which use 1619 in their teaching material.
The view of American history represented by 1619, he says, is un-American.
18 thoughts on “The Marvelous Sugar Baby”
omg. That marvelous sugar baby looks horrible to me! Both racist and sexist! Is that supposed to be a tribute?! I’m a white girl so it’s not my call on the racism, but what do you think? Burn it?
The image is not a tribute. Just a reminder of what went on for so long. And what went on was both sexist and racist!
Still going on in different forms in various areas of our lives…………Thanks for your comment!…….Sarah
If it’s a reminder it’s misguided. It’s continuing a stereotype. That kind of crap has to end. Thanks for letting me opine.
I understand what you are saying. Stereotypes exist. I don’t blame artists – and she is not the only one who addressed this particular stereotype – for their existence or their continuance.
I think it is one of their roles to keep pointing to these stereotypes and to the awful history which created them. Which awful history has not ended. Except for Quaker Oats’ Aunt Jemima which it took the death of an African American to bring to an end.
I don’t think it reasonable to ask artists to live lives which are not theirs or to forget aspects of their lives which continue to degrade them and their people. Just to uplift the rest of us.
Aunt Jemima was offensive and this isn’t? Because a black artist made it? I wish I could unsee it. It annoyed me all day. It’s not art and Kara isn’t an artist.. It’s capitalizing on a horror.
Someone should sue her but it won’t happen. It’s so much worse than Aunt Jemima who was also a stereotype but this is 100 times worse.
It’s time for this kind of crap to end, not be continued by a black artist and a credulous art world into the future. The fn idiots, Kara and the people that commissioned it, are hateful. It’s ok to blame her. She reinforced the stereotype. Who do you think will like this? The most ugly racists out there will love it.
Kara degrades herself, she shows the world her sick sexual fetish, larger than life.
Picasso was shown what was done to his people. Kara Walker also.
I leave everyone to their own expression unless they are attacking me personally. As I have said, there are African American artists who don’t like some of the work which Kara Walker has done and they have said so.
Thanks for the discussion. Sarah
May I add another thought? When an artist relies on shock to get attention in the art world they are weak and should give up on art.
I don’t know what Kara Walker would say to that. I know that she has been fiercely attacked by other African American artists for the subject matter of her work.
But art is her life. And she is shocked by what has gone on in her life and the life of her people. I don’t think we can cancel what an artist knows and represents. Would you say the same about Picasso’s Guernica?
Picasso’s wasn’t attacking his own people. He was showing the horrors of war against his people but he didn’t make them look subhuman.
If a white artist made that horror it would be a hate crime. It’s still a hate crime if it was made by a black artist but she can get away with it.
Black on black crime is as bad as white on black crime and for black people to think it’s ok for another black to dehumanize them is continuing the problem.
Kara is a con artist. I mean conceptual artist. What ever reasoning she gave for this piece of crap is bs. The piece speaks for itself and it’s talking a black artist’s hate for her race. It goes to show the credulity of the people that paid for it. Kara is making money off the suffering of others. When she could be finding a way to help the problem she’s exploiting it for her own benefit.
This isn’t an homage. Who’s word was that? This is a horror and not art. If they called it a fetish I might agree.
Where to begin when so much was wrong, and is still so wrong.
Thanks for your comment, Tish.
I think we have begun long since with calling this ghastly history out; in detail; until the Powers That Be realize that they need to change their values, behaviours, actions.
And also with watching what our own behaviours and actions are so that we don’t feed into the continuation of this awfulness.
Takes so long, though and we have been so used to ignoring so much!…………..Sarah
These days I’m thinking the Powers That Be think we’re all expendable and that we certainly need culling so they can feel more comfortable with all their wealth.
Culling so that the Powers that Be can feel more comfortable with all their wealth: this, of course, sums up the almost the whole of the history of native Americans and African Americans in the United States. And this is a history not theirs alone nor only the history of the US alone.
But I am with Martin Luther King: the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. We need to be keeping faith and keeping the faith and above all not succumbing to these strange times by becoming strange ourselves or strangers to each other!
That is wise, humane advice, Sarah – not becoming strange ourselves or strangers to each other.
In Kenya, Ethiopia and in so many other countries, we would not need to remind ourselves of this! We would continue the practices of sharing food and celebrating this and other rituals. No strangeness there! I try to remember this. I’m sure you do, too, Tish!
You are right. The sharing – food and good heartedness and communal good spirits. I have been thinking a lot about East Africa lately.
I’m sorry, but this is bugging me. When given the opportunity to do a large piece why go with the insulting dehumanizing road? Why not go with the uplifting respectful road? Who wanted this in their building? I would never live there. How can they tolerate it? It needs to be burned up on a pedestal in the square. That would be good for public moral.
Often artists are about truth telling and the truth of these racist symbols and the awful history of sugar farming is not uplifting, Chris. And so many people don’t know about either and don’t want to know and the grievances and resentment continue. I suppose you cannot correct what you don’t know is wrong.
The building was torn down and most of it are condominiums now. I don’t know who owns this piece or where it is now or whether, coated with sugar, such a piece can even survive for long.
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