FEMINISMS UNBOUND @ MIT – The Dark Room: Race and Gender in the Visual Archive – Feb. 11

The Graduate Consortium of Women’s Studies series “Feminisms Unbound” continues at MIT on February 11 featuring members of The Dark Room: Race and Visual Culture Faculty Seminar: Irene Mata (Wellesley College), Sandy Alexandre (MIT), Marcia Chatelain (Georgetown University), and moderator/co-organizer Kimberly Juanita Brown (Brown University). I’ll talk specifically about Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, the sugar installation at the Domino Factory in Brooklyn from last summer. Join us!

Mammy in waiting
Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety…”(July 2014).  Photo by Nikki A. Greene.
The Dark Room: Race and Gender in the Visual Archive
Wednesday, February 11th: 5:30 – 7:30 PM
Location: The Moore Room, Building 6 Room 321

In the intellectual tributary that is critical race theory, all is connected.  Whether the task is elucidating the gendered trajectory of imperialism and violence in the United States, examining indigenous art forms in Latin America, or probing the interstices of Caribbean cultural production in the 20th century, critical race theorists have always engaged the world of the visual.  Bringing together scholars invested in the work of critical race studies as visual culture offers a unique vantage point through which to imagine the future of visual culture studies. The Dark Room is an interdisciplinary working group of scholars interested in theories of visuality and theories of racial formation.   In this roundtable each feminist scholar will select an image and interpret it in relation to its archive.


“Esperanza Spalding, a portrait” by Bo Gehring is Black Gold

Esperanza Spalding is not the kind of celebrity that the public searches for scathing beach shots or rumors of affairs. She’s made her mark on the music industry being the kind of thoughtful, extremely talented singer, songwriter and musician with which we wish the pop charts could be filled. In Bo Gehring’s Esperanza Spalding, a portrait (2014), she’s adorned, but not flashy. There are no tell-tell signs of luxury from the world’s top designers–no Versace gown or Louboutin shoes. Spalding carefully chose her look with sustainable materials and craftsmanship in mind. As the National Portrait Gallery states in its press release of this commissioned video portrait:

For the sitting, Spalding wore jewelry from Red Earth Trading Co. Her skirt is by Tara St. James of Study, a New York-based ethical brand using sustainable materials, and the dress under the skirt is from Tamara Horton of Studio Samuel, a small company that goes to Ethiopia to teach women to sew. The shoes are from What’s More Alive Than You, an Italian company that makes high heels out of old tables.

The architectural foundation of the wooden shoes, the twinkling gold rings, and the metallic layering of those beautiful fabrics present Spalding with the refinement of a woman so self-possessed that she shines.

With this kind of careful intentionality in displaying not only herself but also the work of others (you can literally see the different kinds of stitching used by the seamstresses), how did Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott arrive at this closing sentence in “Esperanza Spalding: Up Close but Not Personal”?

“The camera can’t get any closer, and still it reveals nothing, leaving the viewer feeling a bit cheated, a bit aggressive, and a bit disgusted.”

Cheated? He has a problem with her “celebrity” and resultant ease before Gehring’s camera. Kennicott doesn’t acknowledge that though Spalding won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011, she still doesn’t have the kind of recognizability of Justin Beiber, who she beat out for the category that year. So, why would anyone see this portrait as impersonal? If the viewer, in fact, feels “a bit cheated,” that has nothing to do with Bo Gehring’s technique or portrayal of Spalding nor does it have to do with the musician directly. The viewer must check his or her own value placed on celebrity, on a specific kind of self-seeking, attention-grabbing, over-produced sort (i.e. Justin Beiber).

Bo Gehring won the 2013 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery with his video portrait of a furniture worker, Jessica Wichmanwhich featured the sitter in modest clothes, including a slightly soiled jacket. The subject lays relatively stiff and uncomfortably during the scan, thereby offering a much more vulnerable portrayal. What Kennicott neglects to note in comparison to Bo Gehring’s winning portrait is that Spalding, too, is a worker. When you arrive at Spalding’s hands–the first sight of her body beyond her feet–you see short, unmanicured fingernails, the tools of a bassist. Yes, she smiles. She’s responding to the music. Yes, she’s styled. That’s part of her work, too.

Esperanza hands
Bo Gehring, “Esperanza Spalding, a portrait.” Video Still. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. 2014.

Aggressive? The portrait of Spalding embodies the very lyrics that she gracefully performs on “Black Gold” that somewhat explains Kennicott’s false description of the artist:

Now maybe no one else has ever told you so
But you’re golden, baby
Black Gold with a diamond soul
Think of all the strength you have in you
From the blood you carry within you
Ancient men, powerful men
Builders of civilization
They’ll be folks hell-bent on putting you down
Don’t get burned
‘Cause not necessarily everyone will know your worth

Disgusted? Many visual artists have addressed directly the ways in which the portrayal of the black female body has been systematically degraded, especially within the art world. I’m thinking here of Faith Ringgolds series of paintings revising the very history of art by inserting herself, her family members, historical figures and other black bodies directly into versions of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. Most recently, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, engendered disgust for me in how others responded (see Azucar Negra: Still Digesting Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”). As an art historian, I also think of philosopher and artist Dr. Adrian Piper‘s assertion that there is a “triple negation of the colored woman artist,” a dismissal of her worth just for being “colored,” a woman, and an artist (See Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetics, edited by Lowery Stokes Sims. Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1990, 239–48). Dr. Deborah Willis‘ book and traveling exhibition Posing Beauty in African American Images from the 1890s to the Present (W.W. Norton, 2009) offers over 200 photographs of wonderfully diverse representations of the beauty of the black body from vintage ladies’ journal to newspapers. Posing Beauty is only one of many books on photography by Willis that documents and historicizes black folk looking good, “knowing their worth.” Philip Kennicott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic, did not see his own shortcoming of ascribing to some vague guidelines on how black beauty should be portrayed and appreciated. What should she have looked like? I dare not ask.

When the camera pans on Spalding’s face, did you catch the slight flittering grin and knowing nod? She glows under Gehring’s lens, not just because she’s so used to being in front of the camera and in the public eye, as Kennicott suggests, but rather in concert with the music, she knows intimately the brilliance of the song she chose, Wayne Shorter’s “Tarde” (1974). Yes, Gehring’s camera reveals something, Mr. Kennicott: Spaulding is as radiant as Black Gold.

Azúcar Negra: Still Digesting Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”

I’ve been struggling to put into words the kind of phenomenological experience I had going to see Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that no amount of preparation could actually equip you. Just being there–anxious, confined, exhilarated and unsettled–has made one of the greatest impressions on me as an art historian woman of color.

Fallen Sugar Sculpture. Kara Walker, A Subtlety. Domino Factory. Brooklyn, New York. July 5, 2014. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.

Since my visit to the Domino Factory in Brooklyn on July 5, I cannot rid myself of Celia Cruz singing out her signature refrain: “¡Azúcar!”  Her hook is not a gimmick, but rather an affirmation of her blackness. A firm recognition of the labor of many black bodies that endured the Middle Passage to the Americas to harvest crops, including sugar cane, in places like her native Cuba. The Afro-Cuban proudly asserted in one of her many classic songs, “Azúcar Negra” (written by Mario Diaz):

Soy dulce como el melao’/Alegre como el tambor/Llevo el ritmico tumbao’/Y Africa en el corazon/Hija de una isla rica/Esclava de una sonrisa/ Soy calle y soy carnaval/Calle corazón y tierra/Mi sangre es azúcar negra/Es amor y es música/ Azucar azucar negra/Cuanto me gusta y me alegra/Azucar azucar negra/Ay cuanto me gusta y me alegra

I’m sweet as molasses/Merry as the drum/I wear the rhythmic tumbao’/And Africa in the heart/Daughter of a rich island/slave of a sunrise/I am street and I am carnival/Street, heart and earth/My blood is brown sugar/It is love and music/Black (Brown) Sugar Sugar / How much I love it and it makes me happy/ Black (Brown) Sugar Sugar / Oh how much I love it and it makes me happy*

The excitement of the long-awaited pilgrimage to Brooklyn to one of the most tweeted/blogged/televised/talked about installation of the year subsided once I stepped inside. Once I finally reached the Creative Time‘s sign fully announcing the exhibition, I smelled the molasses-dripped walls of the Domino factory before I entered. The scent enveloped me as I looked around at the vacuous space containing throngs of people navigating the rust and licorice-colored puddles that gathered in the unexpected sloping corners and passages around the carefully-placed sculptures of brown-sugared “children” holding baskets.

Mammy in waiting I knew the “Mammy Sphinx” awaited my inspection, but I only wanted to glance at her from afar. I had to first take my cues from those children, some made of resin coated in sugar, others made of pure azúcar negra (brown sugar) who marked a path from the entrance towards the gleaming white Mammy-in-waiting. For me, they set the tone in the Domino factory. Walker wisely chose to let the conditions of space, time, and the natural elements take their due course, leaving those pure sugar babies purposely neglected, fallen, and broken. Those sculptures were best described by the sound poet, Tracie Morris, who stated at the Free University – NYC event, “Subtleties of Resistance,” held within the factory that afternoon, that the looming sculpture was “a ghost watching over all those sweet dying children.” Paraphrasing Morris, she describe how “their tiny load bearing bodies literally melting on the factory floor and in the shadows are the real story of enslaved labor, suffering, death. She watches them – gaze fixed straight ahead – protecting them, bearing witness for them.” An eery, but apt description.

A number of other elements made me trepidatious about approaching the “Sugar Mama” because it took time to acclimate to the environment: the (anti)ceremonial procession on a street in Brooklyn, the heat of the blazing sun outside, the coolness of the darkened interior, the scent (oh the stench), the reluctant dampness of melting azúcar negra, and the sticky floors coated with it audibly marking each person’s step within.

My attendance was tempered by meeting a former Domino factory worker, Mr. Robert Shelton. I’d learned about his presence as a volunteer through an article written by Leigh Raiford and Robin Hayes in The Atlantic, “Remembering the Workers of the Domino Factory.” As we approached the Sugar Mama — I can’t stop calling her that — Mr. Shelton’s availability to speak about his work within the building mediated my own conflict between the hands of the laborers who earned a living since the factory’s opening in the 1856 until its fraught closing in 2004 and the “art” and its substance in the hands of Kara Waker. Yes, his very presence made the history of the factory much more palpable, palatable, and extraordinary.

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After being there, I do understand why one would yell  (“Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit,” The Indypendent, June 30, 2014). I mostly sighed in my discomfort. It’s a tough piece, and it’s even tougher watching people in inappropriate poses at the expense of the representation of the very people victimized by institutions/systems that created versions of these kinds of “sugar mamas” and their resultant destructive forces. This, despite the public protests against such postering (“‘We Are Here’: People of Color Gather at Kara Walker Show”).

Indeed, the “Sugar Mama” was formidable. She took my breath away. But, what to do with the uneasiness of having seen a black woman’s body turned into a powerful, yet vulnerable monument to the legacy of sugar? What to do about an homage to the black, female body whose site(s) of power — her monumental frame (40′ x 70′ x 90′), her kerchiefed head, her exposed vulva — put on display for close observation, critique, and praise? The respectful and powerful introspection of the “Subtleties of Resistance” really did help to contextualize the installation with the set of readings/performances staged by Free University – NYC with original sound poetry by Tracie Morris, a reading of Frederick Douglass’s July 5, 1852 speech “What to the slave is your Fourth of July?” by Brian Jones, and Sofía Gallisá reading in Spanish of Abelardo Díaz Alfaro’s 1947 story “Bagazo.” (I wasn’t able to attend the workshop and film screening afterward. I imagine that was also immensely transformative for participants.) Being in the company of Wellesley colleagues, former students and other friends who just so happened to come through, I felt in solidarity with those who were willing to thoughtfully and courteously discuss the experience.

There are so many sentiments spoken and unspoken that must still be felt, expressed, sung, and written about. My friend and Wellesley College colleague, Dr. Elena Creef, who joined me on this journey, coined a term – “A Middle Sugar Passage.” Yes, we are travelers on a different kind of 21st century “Passage” wading through the structural failures of a post-industrial collapse of manufacturing in the United States. No, we weren’t taken against our will aboard a ship from our homeland into a foreign one, but we were made to feel like we swayed within the bowels of a vessel, with a single porthole provided in one of the walls to enhance that perception. Again, I ask, where do I — do we — go from here? …back to Celia Cruz perhaps.

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Very few pieces in recent history have done the kind of work to foster the conversations that I think this installation will engender for years to come. I’ve still got my work cut out for me. Research may answer some questions, but I may never be satisfied. That, I guess, is the brilliance of Kara 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.


BOOKS on sugar and slavery to the rescue. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.
BOOKS on sugar and slavery to the rescue. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.* Thank you to Andreina Castillo for help with the translation of the lyrics to “Azúcar Negra.”

* Thank you to Andreina Castillo for help with the translation of the lyrics to “Azúcar Negra.”













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