If you go to Kara Walker’s new exhibit, “A Subtlety,” at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, a lot will overwhelm you. You’ll likely wait outside in a line that snakes down Kent Street, across from rowhouses that were once owned by Puerto Rican families and now fetch millions. You’ll sign a waiver absolving the show’s curators of legal responsibility for the asbestos and lead that you’ll inhale while you’re in the dilapidated 158-year old factory. And, once inside, you’ll see at least a dozen “sugar babies” made of molasses and resin—molds of black children literally melting before your eyes. You’ll smell the molasses as you walk through the exhibit anchored by a 35-foot tall sphinx made of what the artist has called “blood sugar” and sculpted into the shape of a naked mammy. You’ll also see white people. Lots of white people.
This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s reassuring that so many white people have a vested — or at least passing — interest in consuming art that deals with race. At the same time I found it unsettling to view art by a black artist about racism in an audience that’s mostly white. It reinforced the idea that black people’s histories are best viewed but not physically experienced.
Still, the exhibit itself is a striking and incredibly well executed commentary on the historical relationship between race and capital, namely the money made off the backs of black slaves on sugar plantations throughout the Western Hemisphere. So the presence of so many white people — and my own presence as a black woman who’s a descendant of slaves — seemed to also be part of the show. So often, race and racism in America are seen as the sole burdens of people of color, but this subtle interaction demands that white people be part of the conversation. It also, uncomfortably, reintroduces the slave as spectacle. Nearly everyone had their phone out and the Instagram hashtag #KaraWalkerDomino was filled with images of the exhibit (my own included). In that way, it was a deeply interactive exhibit, one as much about the present as the past.