Kara Walker’s massive installation, A Subtlety, was the talk of the art world and a serious attraction in New York City where it was displayed. The main event, was of course The Marvelous Sugar Baby, a larger-than-life naked mammy-sphinx creature, completely naked, with nipples and vulva and full display. Many critics of the piece, black women in particular, found structure vulgar and even triggering as a result of the venue it was displayed in and audience it attracted.
Walker recently addressed such criticisms in a very candid interview with Carolina A. Miranda for the Los Angeles Times.
A Subtlety” inspired any number of essays, in particular one on the website Colorlines that reflected on how this nude black female figure was being ogled primarily by white audiences. What’s your take on that?
That is part of an ongoing debate about black creativity, through the 20th and now the 21st century. It’s, “Who is looking?” And it’s always been the same answer for the most part. How do people look? How are people supposed to look? Are white audiences looking at it in the right way? And are black audiences looking to see this piece? And, of course, my question is: What is the right way to look at a piece that is full of ambiguities and ego and all the other things that go into making a monumental sculpture?
It’s no different from Zora Neale Hurston. There’s always this question: “Is she using language in a way that is demeaning to black people? Is it a throwback for her to be using colloquial Southern speech? Is it capitulating to the demand of white audiences who want to hear black people in a particular way? Or is it speaking her truth? And is that allowed as a black artist? Are we allowed to be individuals within this sea? Or do we have to be unified in this collective?
There was also the question of how people reacted to the statue. There was a lot of talk (and more essays) about all of the vulgar selfies people were taking in front of your sphinx. What’s your view?
I put a giant 10-foot vagina in the world and people respond to giant 10-foot vaginas in the way that they do. It’s not unexpected. Maybe I’m sick. Sometimes I get a sort of kick out of the hyper essay writing, that there’s gotta be this way to sort of control human behavior. [But] human behavior is so mucky and violent and messed-up and inappropriate. And I think my work draws on that. It comes from there. It comes from responding to situations like that, and it pulls it out of an audience. I’ve got a lot of video footage of that [behavior]. I was spying.
Walker also revealed that she is working on an additional piece connected to the exhibition which will incorporate footage of the viewing audience reacting to the piece.