Saturday, June 7, 2014

White Sugar - Red Blood

Out of the blue one Friday evening, a friend and I decided to travel to Williamsburg to see Kara Walker’s exhibit – “A Subtlety* – 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".  I’d seen details of the exhibit in one of the free papers you get in Manhattan and made a note to visit, but time constraints meant that tonight was the first time I had an opportunity to go.

The exhibit is sited in the old Domino Sugar factory built in 1927 to house cane sugar before its whitening process, the factory closed for about ten years now is slated for demolition, to make way no doubt for some fancy smanchy high-rise water front exorbitantly priced condos, so I’m glad I had a chance to see this relic that’s steeped in history, my history.  The first jarring fact hit me in the description that’s inscribed on the outside of the old factory.  The word that jumped out at me ‘Artisans’ immediately set my blood boiling and pulse racing.  For the life of me I couldn’t believe that a black woman would refer to those who were responsible for bringing sugar to the ‘free’ world as ‘artisans'.  Since when did those enslaved Africans become ‘artisans’.  Even though this word left me with a less than sweet taste in my mouth, I decided to continue my foray into the depths of the cavernous space that once housed a thriving throbbing heaving industry fueled by the blood sweat and tears of my ancestors.

The first thing that hits you is the smell.  A sweet, sweaty, sticky, oppressive smell that pervades the very walls blackened with molasses, age and one can imagine the heat of long extinguished furnaces.   There’s a sense of foreboding and oppression that descends like a shroud and no matter the shrill twittering and what seems false gaiety of the throngs who’ve come to see the exhibit – it’s a feeling that I can’t seem to shake.  The preamble to the exhibit is the strategically placed ‘picaninnies’ that seem to usher a path to the magnificent statue at the end of the great hall.  The children, I imagine the referenced ‘sugar babies’ are holding baskets, bananas, or other items, but the thing that struck me most was that they are disintegrating and the dark pools that drip down onto the floor uncannily resemble red streams of blood.  I shudder at the sight as my primordial memory remembers the blood spilled in the cultivation of the cane refined to that sweet white almighty sugar, the rich man’s delicacy and the black man’s denouement.  One of the ‘babies’ has lost an arm, the symbolism is not lost in this space, where countless limbs no doubt were mangled by menacing and hungry machines being constantly fed with the substance that would produce that pristine poison.

As we get closer to the main attraction, my steps are slowed and tears well up, there she is - the great mammy, exaggerated negro features, the wide full lips and flared nostrils, the turban, the voluptuous breasts and round hard nipples, she sits on haunches like a great blindingly white Egyptian Sphinx.  The irony of her color doesn't immediately hit home because after all - this is an old sugar factory!  Walking slowly along her length, I’m assailed by so many emotions, slowing down, taking pictures, when I reach her rear end, I’m breathing hard as I see her backside, with the exposed labia and my heart bleeds as my friend, her facial expression as pained as my own whispers “the rape of the African nation”.  Exposed, defenceless, open – this is just too much for me and I make my retreat, brushing away the tears that are falling unchecked.  I’m aware that people are staring at me, but I can’t help it….I just can’t help it.

* Subtleties were old fashioned sugar sculptures adorning the dining tables of the wealthy.
NB:  The Exhibit runs until July 6, on Fridays through Sundays at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg.