Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Dirty Sugar: Kara Walker’s dubious alliance with Domino

June 16, 2014 - 7:00am -- Carol Diehl
Photo: Dennis Kardon © 2014
There’s much that disturbs me about Kara Walker’s much-laudedand wildly popular installationat Brooklyn’s defunct Domino Sugar refinery, but I’ll start with its undeniable beauty. Made of sparkling white sugar, this gigantic, crouching sphinx-like figure, with curves like a Brancusi, looms like a symbol of purity in the vast darkness and decay of the factory’s interior. The sweet smell is overwhelming, and the piece itself is intended to degrade over time; when I was there, skeletal dark lines were beginning to form between the polystyrene blocks that form the core of the sculpture. Conceptually and figuratively, it’s a virtuoso performance that brilliantly fulfills part of nonprofit Creative Time’s original mission to ”support the creation of innovative, site-specific, socially engaged works in the public realm, especially in vacant spaces of historical and architectural interest…while pushing artists beyond their normal boundaries.” [See note below]

So why does its beauty upset me? Because the installations’ sheer gorgeousness and spectacle serve as a distraction from the insidious agenda that makes a mockery of another part of Creative Time’s mission, to “foster social progress.”  I have long felt that Walker’s workin which blacks are portrayed as passive victims of slavery engaged in psycho-sexual dramadoesn’t invalidate, but rather reinforces the stereotypes whites have imposed on blacks to justify racism, and is entirely dependent on the gratuitous titillation that violence and sex inevitably engender, regardless of the context—or the race of the person who perpetrates them. Walker’s sphinx conflates two familiar white parodies of black women: the big-assed, sexually available Jezebel, with her vulva hanging out for the taking, and her opposite, the maternal, large-breasted but desexualized Mammy, who sublimates her own needs to fulfill those of her white charges.
Vulgar photos taken by visitors posing with the “sphinx” are all over Instagram, and castigated online by writers who are upset that the artwork is not being shown proper respect. Derived from minstrel shows where whites in blackface lampooned blacks, the caricatures Walker appropriates were created with the specific intention of provoking ridicule. Should we then be surprised when they succeed?

Roberta Smith in the Times writes that Walker “evokes the history of the sugar trade, its dependence on slavery and slavery’s particular degradation of women, while also illuminating the plagues of obesity and diabetes that keep so many American dreams unfulfilled.” Yet it can also be said that Walker is providing massive advertising for Domino Sugar, which donated the 80 tons that make up the sculpture. As a sponsor, the familiar Domino logo is prominently featured on a wall at the site as well as Creative Time’s website, and a Google search for ‘“Kara Walker” Domino’ garners over 88,000 links. Statements that speak of “history,” along with the fact that Walker’s images are based nostalgically on our antebellum past, present a view of slavery that locates it dangerously outside the present capitalist global economy—when it is still very much part of it.

While Creative Time’s website includes a compelling essay written by the narrator of a documentaryabout the forced and child labor that constitute modern slavery, it doesn’t name the mega-corporation that owns Central Romano, the plantation on which it was filmed: Flo-Sun, of which Domino is its best-known subsidiary. If the people at Creative Time, along with Walker, have seen this film—as indeed they must have in their research—I wonder how they feel about the ironic possibility that Walker’s sculpture might have been enabled by slave labor.

Pepe and Alfy Fanjul, who run Flo-Sun, inherited the sugar empire from their Cuban father. Dubbed“the Koch brothers of Southern Florida,” they‘re said to be friends and neighbors of the Kochswho, in comparison with the sugar barons, look like Mother Theresa clones.

In the Dominican Republic, the Fanjuls have been subject to repeated allegations of labor exploitation, particularly of undocumented Haitian migrant workers with little to no legal standing before Dominican government institutions. The U.S. Department of Labor includes sugar from the Dominican Republic—much of which comes from Fanjul-owned plantations or is imported to Fanjul-owned refineries—on its annual "List of Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor."Both a 2005 Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary [“The Price of Sugar,” narrated by Paul Newman, view here]and the 2007 film "The Sugar Babies," narrated by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat [author of the Creative Time essay] call attention to the working conditions of impoverished cane-cutters laboring at the Fanjuls' Central Romana. In the United States, meanwhile, opponents of U.S. agricultural subsidies and government protections have long criticized the Fanjuls for building their dominance in the domestic market on the backs of artificially inflated prices and the U.S. taxpayer…. more

Essential reading includes the 2001 Vanity Fair article, “In the Kingdom of Big Sugar,” which inspired the two documentaries, a CNN piece on how the Fanjuls could be the “First Family of Corporate Welfare,” and this on their strong-arm tactics with lawmakers, from Wikileaks.

You could spend days, as I did, reading about the moral and ethical transgressions of the Fanjuls, and just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does: In 2010, the Post’s Page Six reported that Pepe Fanjul’s executive assistant of 35 years is the ex-wife of former KKK leader David Duke, and the current wife of Don Black, a former KKK grand wizard and member of the American Nazi Party. He now runs white-supremacist Web site A company representative said, “While we may not agree with someone’s politics, we wouldn’t terminate them for that….We will not discriminate against anybody….”

One could also make an issue of the extensive advertising Walker is providing for another sponsor, Two Trees Management, owned by Creative Time board member Jed Walentas, who worked for Trump before taking over his father’s real estate business, and will have 1700 luxury apartments to sell in his massive waterfront development on the site (as well as 700 affordable units, the number bumped up under pressure from Mayor de Blasio). And then there’s the non-renewable polystyrene that went into this gigantic temporary work that, like Styrofoam, could take a million years to break down. However next to the question of how the 80 tons of Fanjul sugar were most likely sourced, these are mere quibbles.

So much for institutionalized protest—this is art packaged to look like radicalism while supporting capitalism at its worst.

Next: “Occupy!” (The Musical), brought to you by Citibank.

Photo: Carol Diehl (2014)

Note:  I lifted this mission statement from Creative Time’s Wikipedia entry, well aware that it is not same statement that appears on their website. However having been Director of Public Relations (a somewhat hilarious title, given that I was the entire department) for Creative Time in the mid-80’s, when it was a pioneering organization and very true to its nonprofit status, these were the words I used to promote it and feel best represent the inspired vision of founder Anita Contini.

Related reading: The Flying Walentases (on the developers in NY Mag), Marina Budhos's Kara Walker and the Real Sugar Links, and Nicholas Powers, Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit


Carol, a fascinating piece on the political connections of Domino, but I would like to respectfully disagree on a few points.

I think it is a mistake to attack Walker on the gratuitous titillation charge. As original conceived in her first exhibition at the Drawing Center, the black paper silhouettes were radical partly because of the way they implicated a viewer's imagination with its store of racial and pornographic stereotypes in order to complete the piece. It was the ambiguity that gave the early work that power.

It was only after the attack by the black intellectuals that you mention which scared her off her original premise, that Walker started to weaken and temporize her work with text, illustration, and general dumbing down and lack of trust in the original power of her work, making explicit and obvious what was before ambiguous and requiring a complicity on the part of viewers.

This is the first really great work of hers since then, because it again requires that complicity. Rather than temporizing the Domino connection it throws it in their face. No one having seen this piece can now innocently buy a Domino product again. She has made visible something hidden, and easy to stay unaware of, and in a way that brings the full horror of it home.

It is important for groups that have been oppressed to take back the stereotypes that oppressors have used to define them, emphasizing their degrading nature. And people who criticize Walker for doing this don't really understand the artistic power in the way she has most successfully employed it. The work (at its best) is not really titillating, it is discomfiting. But you are correct that the criticism of the instagrams is disingenuous. They were to be expected. I don't think it was Walker that criticized them.

I think this piece is more problematic for Domino, especially with your research, than it is for viewers or Walker. As for Two Trees I am afraid that being in bed with them is pretty self-defeating. I urge artists not to participate in their open studio celebrations which just raise the value of the real-estate and hasten their own eventual eviction.

Dennis, Just to reply to your point about Domino -- the piece isn't problematic for Domino at all. But donating the sugar they essentially keep Creative Time from pointing a direct finger at them--consider it a pay-off. And the publicity they get goes way beyond even the people who actually came to see the piece. They sponsored a work of art…makes them look great. After all, a major article in Vanity Fair and two shockingly explicit documentaries about their abuses didn't touch them, so how big a deal, really, is a sculpture?-- especially one that doesn't connect the dots.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
Your essay borders on offensive. Only a few current writers have had the insight and intelligence to write comprehensively about Walker's "Subtlety". I smell jealousy.

What I want to know is this: who were the people who actually built the sculpture and what were they paid? Were they artists? Construction workers? Were they paid fairly, treated decently? There's so much talk about the terrible treatment of the people who worked in the sugar factory itself - I want to know about these other folk. I don't for a minute assume that everything was groovy for them. Anybody know?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
There is also another very disturding issue......Walker found the images for the children from online figurines produced by african artisans......she then had them enlarged by computer and copied......did she get permission?..did she pay any royalties to the litlle paid worker who made the original figurines?...does anyone know this?......or is this just another big name artist exploiting the work of others?

I wonder how many of the people who visited the site will stop buying Domino sugar. I wonder how many will go home, get on the Internet and research the history of the imagery they saw, i.e. Sarah Baartman who was made to shake her nakedness before all-white audiences at the turn of the 19th century. Or the anti-Black stereotypes that permeated popular culture from the ante-bellum period until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. How many will connect the dots from these eras stretching back 300+ years?

Submitted by Brian Greif (not verified) on
Carol - Incredible in site and context. I have not seen the installation however, many of my friends in the art business have - gallery owners, art advisors and artists. What I found interesting was, they only commented on the "reverse" side of the installation. It was the first and last thing they discussed. I wonder Walker intended that as the main "take away" from the project. All other meaning was lost. There was no social commentary, no greater meaning. The imagery and message taken for viewing the piece by "art insiders" was the hind end of the installation.

Submitted by David Brody (not verified) on

Smart, provocative piece. Thank you for taking a strong position, which is really what the work begs for.

I'm a fan of KW-- even as I've asked myself many of the questions you ask here. I agree with Dennis that her work is not titillating sexually (I personally am not into deformity, rape, and humiliation), but do think that it's titillating politically-- and I admire it for that. It puts everyone on the spot, because we can't stop looking even while we tremble at the dangerous forces that have been put in play.

Well, where is the trembling here, at this massively public Domino installation? That's the problem, as you point out.

How is it that a work that SHOULD seem outrageous as a public art piece is now just another tourist attraction, not to mention a Barnum-esque real estate stunt? Considerably more subtle, perhaps "misunderstood" public works in Chicago, DC, and elsewhere have been removed after protests from the activist black community. Between Walker's Drawing Center debut in 1994 and twenty years on, what was once genuinely risky (for a quasi-public institution such as the DC), or at least avant-garde-risqué, has become mega-cultural –– so much so that African Americans from non-art walks of life, it looks like, are coming out in droves to see the Domino piece. I would guess they are coming with pride at the success of a black artist, on her own terms. I would also guess there have been many heated discussions about her tactics -- but I have not seen the sort of roundtable discussion with black intellectuals, artists, and political activists that you might expect in the mainstream press and media had there been there a significant groundswell of protest. Maybe black voices are being squelched by a conspiracy of official (liberal, white) museum culture and official (liberal, white) critical culture, but I doubt it.

As for earlier loud and clear protests by Betye Saar, Howardena Pindell and other black artists, Walker must have known that she would not be embraced with open arms by previous generations who had cleared the ground she was now setting bonfires in. But she in turn has cleared even more ground, which has made being an artist of color into a whole new ballgame for subsequent generations.

That is sometimes how it works. Carol, you submit an unthinkable counter-example of Jewish provocateurism-- but actually, if an audacious, talented Jewish artist took up your idea of Nazi-dick-sucking, big-nosed concentration camp victims she'd probably succeed brilliantly. (Because it's so WRONG, and far enough in the past.) William Kentridge laid the evils of Apartheid at the feet of Jewish industrialist Soho Eckstein-- and no one seemed to notice, except insofar as it established Kentridge's avant-garde political bona fides. Come to think of it, Portnoy's Complaint WAS vilified in Jewish circles high and low as an anti-semite's (genuinely titillating) wet dream. Are Walker, Kentridge, and Philip Roth exploiting outsiders' guilty pleasures, throwing their own people to the wolves for careerist gain, or are they Promethean heroes, breaking the rules? From my perspective (white, Jewish, 5th decade) Walker has possibly liberated political art as Roth liberated the ethnic novel.


Submitted by david brody (not verified) on
I think Walker's brilliance, power, and twisted complexity as an artist has simply run roughshod over even the most principled second thoughts, white and black, yours, mine-- and maybe even her own. I am never sure what to make of her work-- it is not at all a comfortable, easy read, and thus the critical/corporate endorsement of the present installation is truly a strange thing to contemplate.

My last comment, Carol, concerns your valuable revelations about the evils STILL THRIVING in the sugar industry. I don't agree that Walker's critique of the history of slavery plus sugar points only at the past. I expect she was under less of an illusion about how sugar is produced today than most people are when buying consumer goods and food staples (such as shrimp-- see a recent Times article) produced, essentially, with slave labor. Even so, there are degrees of abuse, and what is going on in the DR with Haitian labor is horrific and we must stop it.

So maybe Walker should have refused to source sugar from the overtly racist Domino kleptopoly-- and that would have made its own Hans-Haacke-like point, with moral clarity. But then again, it's right up Walker's alley to over-inflate moral clarity like a balloon (or a styrofoam sphinx) and then puncture it. The fact that modern-day sugar slavery might be smeared all over a historicizing racist image makes that image more excruciatingly present, more unavoidable. In the factory space you can't even tell if the pervasive molasses stench is from what once was, or from what still is. Let Domino Sugar put its logo all over that.

If Walker's sugar Mammy functions for many visitors, nevertheless, as chic, naughty nostalgia, or as a Domino or Two Trees ad -- well, is that really Walker's fault? Could she hit us over the head any harder without cracking our skulls?

I see the wink. Ms Walker is taking the money Domino never paid for slave labor, rape, and other exploitations. I hope she charged them an arm and a leg. As for the art, the vulgar and vapid instagram reactions are extensions of white historical positioning. This article is a tangent of liberal? conservative? white condescension. As if Ms Walker didn't know who and what was paying for that monumental Sugar Baby. There is no separation from our or your ancestors in that room. Whites are happy and cavorting and Blacks are shamed and indignant. Everyone is uncomfortable. I have been to the bateys where Haitians are indentured in sugarcane fields. I met a man who came to the Dominical Republic when he was 20 to find his sister and found himself in big sugar's debt. He was 91 and has never seen his sister since. Ms Walker had better take Domino's money.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
From Anne Healy: Carol, As a public art artist and site specific sculptor, I have to defend
Kara Walker's marvelous piece. Ms Walker stated her intention for the piece
in all the press for it and in Creative Time's press release. Why can't
critics and others just accept her intention? Why burden the work with investigative reporting on the source of the commission, the source of the
money and the source of the space to deem her and her work hypocritical at
best? It is a beautiful, grand and intense piece of public art that creates
in that vast space a hallelujah to the beauty of the thousands of black
women and children forced to work in the slavery of the sugar industry. All
of your investigations have nothing to do with the piece...NOTHING. I
think it is the second best work of public art that I have ever seen and experienced, the first being the Vietnam Memorial, another work weighted
down with other people's political interpretations. No work of art should
be burdened with that kind of weight. As to Creative Times Mission
Statement in the '80's, I cannot address that as I do not know it, being in
Ca from 1981 to 2008. BUT, I did the first site specific piece for Creative
Time in 1974 at 55 Water Street, a new building with a vacant, huge ground
floor space that Anita Contini was very happy to acquire for my show, SAIL.
I can assure you that as Anita, her husband and I piled into his truck to
go to City Island to pick up actual sails from sailmakers that we had
talked into lending us for the show, no one was thinking of the social significance of this work. We just wanted to make an installation that was beautiful and grand showing the beauty of ordinary objects in space.That
was my intention and Creative Time accepted and supported the artists' intentions. It still does.

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