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Summary: Kara Walker’s, “A Subtlety”

Kara Walker’s art installation, A Subtlety includes several dramatic figures alluding to African American involvement in the sugar trade constructed from white sugar and molasses. The most prominent piece of the installation is a large Mammy Sphinx featuring prominent breasts and buttocks all made out of white sugar. Other figures include children made of molasses who over time, slowly melt away due to the intense heat; they are placed off to the side, behind poles and seem to slowly die away in the presence of the sphinx. That fact that the highly sexualized sphinx remains the main attraction despite the tragedy of the small children “dying” off to the sides speaks volumes about how people interrogate art. However, half the spectacle of the installment is the attendee’s reaction including their anticipated selfie practices via Instagram and video reactions in which Kara Walker states “will eventually become a piece in and of itself” (Herman 2014).


Through A Subtlety, Walker wishes to consider, “who is looking?” and “how do they look?” by collecting a series of videos and selfies through #karawalkerdomino. Common pictures of the piece as documented via the hashtag depicts predominantly white guests interacting with the sphinx’s bare breasts, buttocks and vagina combined with the comment, “Sweet Cheeks” and “Giant ass made in sugar”. Some videos depict thralls of people waiting in line only to go in and swarm around the sphinx, making goofy poses or staring consumptively. Additionally, certain parents were not diligent enough to keep their children from licking the sculptures (Watts). However, some writers saw the irony of these reactions including Nicolas Powers in “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit” and Stephanye Watts’ “The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instagram Capital”. These authors comment on how visitors bought in to sexually exploiting the Mammy sphinx, putting themselves in the foreground of racial-historical criticism. It is appropriate to consider how similar movements such as #artselfie become part of the creation itself. Although Walker is aware of the social media influence involved in her work, many older pieces of work, along with the social space of the art gallery have been re-recorder and re-receptive through modern photography. Do art selfies re-invent the work through the recording of onlooker reactions or destroy it with unintended, intruding subjects?

Works Cited

Herman, Alison. “Kara Walker Knew People Would Take Dumb Selfies With ‘A Subtlety,’ and That Shouldn’t Surprise Us.” FlavorWire. FlavorPill Media, 14 Oct. 2014. Web.
Powers, Nicholas. “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit.” The Indypendent. N.p., 30 June 2014. Web.
Watts, Stephanye. “The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instagram Capital.” Gawker. N.p., 6 Apr. 2014. Web.

About Alexandra Orlando

A game critic, freelance writer and Twitch streamer. My writing mainly focuses on e-sports, streaming, game narrative and performance in gaming spaces


2 thoughts on “Summary: Kara Walker’s, “A Subtlety”

  1. This is a very interesting look at Walker’s exhibit, and in an attempt to answer your question of if #artselfies re-invent the work, I would suggest in Walkers case it does and it doesn’t. It doesn’t re-invent, even though it obliterates the original intent or meaning of historical racism, but seeing writers critique about it puts things all back into perspective. Paradoxically, this highlights the problem of the mentality people have when taking these photos, which is exactly the original intent and meaning of it: racism in period of history whereas history here is transhistoric.


    Posted by airlieheung | March 13, 2015, 4:29 am
  2. This is super ironic and these idiotic people are proving Kara’s point. I wish individuals would intellectually and analytically observe and embrace art without making the whole experience a joke. These people have a great advantage of seeing this historic contemporary piece from a very well known artist from our time and they treat that advantage like nothing. Since its made from sugar, it has to be a temporary piece, I’m assuming. I would kill to see that sculpture and/or meet Kara Walker. It kind of upsets me. I’m even more disappointed in the women who couldn’t empathize with the fact that women in general (not just AFAM women) are hyper sexualized in the media. I’m an artist myself who has used nudity in my work before so I understand how immature adult viewers can be as if they never seen the human body before. But at the same time, as an artist, you have to be prepared for responses like that to your work unfortunately.


    Posted by Jelisa Davis | March 26, 2017, 2:14 pm

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