Kara Walker | A “Once in a Lifetime” Subtlety

Contributed by Lynette Braxton

DSP Logo - Sq BlOnce in a lifetime experiences are divine gifts. That phrase “once in a lifetime” is often said, but I wonder if people are fully conscious of those moments and how those experiences could truly transform their lives?


I have had several once in a lifetime moments. One occasion was in South Africa in 1994. I was touring there as a storyteller gathering and recording local stories of the South Africans as they embarked on their new freedom. Entire families shared their stories about finally getting the opportunity to vote for Nelson Mandela.

Mandela supporters cheer during an election rally in Thaba Nchu, South Africa, on April 21, 1994.  Photo Credit: NPR.org

Mandela supporters cheer during an election rally in Thaba Nchu, South Africa, on April 21, 1994. Photo Credit: NPR.org

They shared stories of a new day, new era without apartheid and police brutality, and equal rights for all South Africans. I was thrilled being there collecting their stories and sharing African American stories from my Ms. Lynn’s Storytime Shows. That truly was a once in a lifetime experience for me as a storyteller.


Another unforgettable experience was when I went to the 2009 polls and voted for the first African American President of the United States President Barack Obama. I witnessed South Africans choose their president and never did I believe that I would have the same opportunity to elect an African American in my lifetime. Once in a lifetime, extraordinary experiences do happen. It is a great thing when people recognize and live in those moments.

US President Barack Obama taking his Oath of Office on January 20, 2009. Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo|U.S. Air Force.

US President Barack Obama taking his Oath of Office on January 20, 2009. Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo|U.S. Air Force.


My most recent once in a lifetime experience occurred when viewing Kara E. Walker’s 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 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Kara Walker.  Photo Credit: Justin Rocket Silverman|New York Daily News.

Kara Walker. Photo Credit: Justin Rocket Silverman|New York Daily News.

Staying consistent with her socially conscious philosophy, her creations often represent the baneful violence against women and humanity; the inhumane raw conditions that profile the acts of sexism, racism and slavery. As an artist she has had to stand by her choices to create and tell her revisionary tales. She has not wavered from her convictions and her works have been well received on the local, national and international forum.


As I walk up to the zeppelin sized entrance of the factory I smell a foul, nauseating odor. I hear the gallery guests around me ask, “What is that awful smell?” We discover it is from years of refinery labor and burnt sugar encrusted on the walls and that the sculptures inside are created from that same sugar.

Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

The space is like the empty belly of a steel ship dimly lit by the afternoon summer sun. There are no labels to inform what is in the exhibit; only a sign near the entrance stating that guests must not touch the sculptures, but encouraging visitors to take pictures and share on social media.

Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.


I am struck by the direct power of the sun piercing through the opaque, topaz, clear and broken windows creating an ominous exaggeration of the massive four-story Sugar Sphinx sitting near the rear of the colossal factory. This immobile Sphinx looks intently down at me causing immediate sensations of panic. She takes my breath away.

Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Lynette Braxton|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Lynette Braxton|Down Stage Pass|2014.

I decide to view everything in the space before I reach the Gaea the Sugar Sphinx. I follow a trail of sticky substance, melted sugar, on the floor that lead to a small cluster of people marveling at the first life-size sculpture.

Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.


The childlike figures are referred to as “attendants.” Looking at the attendant I hear people speculating about what they think it is made of. I discover that the sculpture is made from sugar. Parts of the ears are translucent. The lightness and clarity of color remind me of amber.

Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

A procession of attendants lead up to the Sphinx. There are none behind her. All have large baskets filled with sugar. Some contents are melting while others are still granulated. There are broken dismembered bodies. It is disturbing.

Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.


In the steel wall there is a singular twelve inch porthole. Curiosity draws me towards the opening. When I tiptoe to see what is on the other side I am surprised, because I thought there would be another type of artwork inside. There are only dancing gusts of winds blowing over the river and throngs of weeds on the Manhattan shore.

Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

I allow my emotions to experience the sensations of what this represents. To me it is the porthole of a slave ship and the view captives see of a foreign land, not Mother Africa. My heart is touched instantly with empathy and hopelessness. I imagine that these attendants are my children and that they would never see our family or homeland again—then what? I move. I move from that porthole and get closer to the Sphinx.


Directly in front of the Sphinx is one intact attendant that calls to me. I watch from a distance at first as a photographer takes pictures of him. I tell her that he seems to be looking directly at her. She tells me, “I know, I see him.” She repositions herself to get a better angle and I see the tears in her eyes. She says, “You know, that’s sugar in there. They had to work so hard to get that sugar. And these people just don’t understand.”

Unknown photographer and Lynette Braxton viewing Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Unknown photographer and Lynette Braxton viewing Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

I told her that I do understand, “I’m from the south and I know about sugar cane plantations. Yes, they need to hear his story.”

She says, “I’m from Alabama. Yea, you would know what I mean.” We embrace and she dashes away to another part of the gallery to capture more pictures of the stories being held within the factory.


I stand there staring at the boy. I lean towards his crystallized body and cup my hands close to his mouth in order to hear his story. He speaks with urgency. He knows this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for him to get someone to listen and not walk away. He knows that the exhibit is slated to be destroyed in a matter of days. I eagerly listen with my heart and watch his amber eyes that never leave the sentinel gaze of the Sphinx.

Lynette Braxton interacting with Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Lynette Braxton interacting with Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

“Go tell them our story.  They don’t know that we did this for them to have freedom. Serving with smiles we wear the Mona Lisa masks so master–she can’t see what we’re really thinking. We wear the masks for them to be free but they can’t be free if they don’t know the story.”

After he tells me all I turn to say “Goodbye.” He is at peace knowing that I would pass on his story.


Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Why white sugar, Pretty Brown Sugar

Crowned Majestic Mammy
Towering Four stories high
Vigilant sentinel with piercing eyes
Outspoken heroic lips
Birthing civilizations through her African hips

Prevailing white/over white/in white
Bleached white slurry
Standing arched back
From centuries of back breaking
Breaking backs

Why white sugar?
Pretty brown sugar
White sugar sweeter
Is that your morning twitt?

Removing impurities
Extraction/cut from the source
Life source
Is that why it’s done?

Pressed with hardship
Left to dry
60 chemicals to make you white
Then you die

Why white sugar
Pretty brown sugar?
Illusions of abundance
Towering crystallizations

Knowledge Overshadowing
the shadows within
The legacy and pain
Brown refined to white

Consider with care
All Natural raw sugar
Multifaceted and rich
Why white sugar
It’s your nature-Pretty brown sugar


Kara Walker's A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

Kara Walker’s A Subtlety. Photo Credit: Marcus Dargan|Down Stage Pass|2014.

For more info on Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, visit CreativeTime.org
Learn more about Kara Walker and her work at WalkerArt.org

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About the author

Lynnette Braxton, (Ms. Lynn), is a Louisiana native and professional actress, writer and storyteller. She has performed multicultural and inspirational stories in diverse venues ranging from local basement churches to international stages. She is the author of Thanks for the Memories, a play celebrating the 200th Year Anniversary of Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York. Ms. Lynn first worked with veteran director and actor Robert Duvall and John Beasley in the film The Apostle, portraying the character Mother Blackwell. Since then, she has appeared in many film, television, and theatre productions. Theatre fans will recognize her from NYC productions of Tambourines To Glory, Mrs. Dally Has A Lover, The Wiz, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and The African Drum. Her professional affiliations include: Gumbeaux Magazine (Featured Fiction Writer), National Storytelling Network, Network of Biblical Storytellers, New York-Abyssinian Baptist Church Creative Arts Ministry, National Association of Black Storytellers, African Folk Heritage Circle, and Writers' Guild of Acadiana of LA. Ms. Lynn holds an M.S.Ed. in Educational Theatre and B.A. in Theatre. lynnettebraxton.com

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