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date: 12 May 2021

Theatricality in Contemporary Visual and Performance Art on New World Slavery

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines forms and uses of theatricality in recent African American productions on slavery in the performing and the visual arts. It argues that by deploying modes of the comic, such as satire and parody, along with racial stereotypes, in their engagement with the traumatic history of slavery, contemporary artworks aim to provoke their audiences into an affective relationship with the artwork and the history it represents. In this manner, they seek to bring into focus not the past itself but our present-day reactions to it, asking viewers to reflect on their involvement with the ongoing mimetic and affective legacies of New World slavery. The article discusses Suzan-Lori Parks’s 1996 play Venus and Kara Walker’s 2014 installation A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby as case studies.

Keywords: theatricality, performance, theater, audience, African American, slavery, stereotype, satire, Kara Walker, Suzan-Lori Parks

When looking at recent artworks and performances dealing with New World slavery, one is struck by their readiness to confront and confound, to shock and provoke their audiences. Many of them tackle established taboos head-on and engage the traumatic history of slavery and its various affective, material, and representational legacies in decidedly playful, often humorous, sometimes irreverent ways. As novelist Fred D’Aguiar writes, each generation of people of African descent needs to have “their own version of the past, to see the past in their own images, words. To have slavery nuanced their way” (1997, 126). The artists growing up in the post–civil rights era frequently choose to signify on accepted tropes and narratives of cultural memory by deploying various modes of the comical, such as satire, parody, and the grotesque. Their playful provocations operate in the spirit of what Simon Critchley calls a “critical social anthropology” of the everyday (2002, 65); that is, they use the ludic and the incongruous to defamiliarize routine engagements with race and racial history, to point out popular fallacies, and to lay bare entrenched fantasies and misconceptions. Satirical laughter, the break with taboos and the brushing of established memory narratives against the grain, as well as the provocation of strong audience affect are key strategies used by today’s visual and performance artists in their efforts to question and trouble entrenched versions of American and African American history and to formulate new narratives of the past. While contemporary artists can draw on similar interventions by a few notable literary and visual predecessors, such as Zora Neal Hurston, George Schuyler, Ishmael Reed, Douglas Turner Ward, and Robert Colescott, arguably no other period has seen such a concentrated recourse to playful and comic signifying in its engagement with collective trauma.

Playfulness and dark humor are widespread in today’s visual and theatrical performances on slavery—whether in the form of boisterous satire, such as Dave Chappelle’s TV skits (2003–2004); the skillful parody of established tropes of the commodification of blackness (past and present) in Internet performances by Keith Obadike and damali ayo; or the carnivalesque humor noir in visual artworks like Kara Walker’s silhouette installations of antebellum plantation life. In light of the subject matter, this focus on the comic may appear startling. As scholars Darryl Dickson-Carr and Glenda Carpio point out, humor—particularly of the satirical kind—has long played a central role in African American culture, offering an important mechanism for mediating and resisting the pervasiveness of racism and oppression in US society. But it has also been “largely underplayed within the moral and militant culture of the civil rights and Black Power movements and the climate of political correctness that followed” (Carpio 2008, 20); its more overt forms of expression have frequently been sacrificed to “tacit forms of censorship” (20), especially when the object of satire “could easily include the black community itself” (Dickson-Carr 2001, 123). In light of the overall mandate to advance racial uplift and progress, “‘airing house business,’” as Derek Maus observes (2014, xvi), seemed hardly advisable. The cohort of artists born in the post–civil rights era, emerging on the cultural scene from the late 1980s onward, by contrast, seem to have no such qualms, rigorously and playfully submitting “the canon of positive images to subversion and parody—and appropriation” (Taylor 2007, 631). Maus, along with other scholars, has therefore indicated a sea change in contemporary black culture, suggesting that concerns with seriousness and authenticity have given way to “a pervasive satirical mood” (2014, xiii) in African American art over the past thirty years.

The pervasive satirical mode of what critics have come to call the contemporary “post-soul” culture (see George 1992; Ashe 2007) operates on two fronts. On the one hand, it continues to critique the dominant institutional structures and social practices embedded in the material and discursive legacies of New World slavery. On the other hand, it examines closely the various tropes, lieux-de-mémoire, and narratives constitutive of contemporary African American identity, targeting in particular the various blank spots of history, or as Roderick Ferguson puts it, “[t]he unfamiliar, the invisible, the unspeakable, and the contested” (2009, 185) that needs to be kept at bay for the sake of delineating narratives of “heroism, political purity, and innocence” (188). Contemporary black artists challenge this “poetics of evasion” (187) in both content and form. In addition to confronting established taboos, they frequently rehearse the problematic images of racial stereotypes and the contested language of minstrelsy.

Yet not everyone has been amused by these ludic engagements with a traumatic history of physical and representational abuses. Indeed, a great number of contemporary performances have sharply divided their audiences into fans and detractors, with very strong reactions on both sides. When Kara Walker made her debut in New York City in September 1994 with a 50-foot, cut-paper silhouette installation provocatively entitled Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, and when Suzan-Lori Parks premiered with her play Venus in March 1996 a rather unconventional take on the iconographic figure of Sara Baartman, both artists triggered public outcry and debate. While some viewers enthusiastically applauded these works for their daring and originality in approaching the legacy of slavery, others objected to the artists’ “sassy impudence” (Bowles 1997, 8). In particular, the artists’ deployment of racial stereotypes became a bone of contention. While appreciated by some as valiant attempts at signifying in the service of liberating representations of African Americans in art (see Henry Louis Gates, Jr., quoted in Bowles 1997; see also Simms, Dalton and Harris 1997; Garrett 2002), others insisted that these artworks merely reified the “perverse imperialist mindset” for contemporary audiences by repeating “the travesty of objectification of ‘Otherness’” (Young 1997, 700). Where some saw humor and playfulness (see Wallace 1996), others dismissed the artists as “young and foolish” (Saar quoted in Bowles 1997, 4) and rebuked them for willfully catering to the (racist) tastes of the white art world in the pursuit of success. “Kara is selling us down the river,” Betye Saar commented in a famously brash verdict (quoted in Bowles 1997, 4).

Reactions like these attest to the powerful, affective quality of many of these recent works. With their satirical humor, irreverence for established taboos, and playful use of stereotypes they provoke their audiences, demanding attention, eliciting a response. This confrontational quality, described by some critics as “in-yer face” (see Kuspit 2003; Touré 2011, 37), can be usefully conceptualized in more theoretical terms as a form of theatricality.

A notoriously slippery term, theatricality has been used to describe a great variety of performances—both on and off stage (see Postlewait and Davis 2003). Two specific uses of the term, however, prove to be useful in analyzing the affective quality of recent cultural productions addressing the legacy of slavery: theatricality as (a) referring to the self-reflective meta-quality of a particular form of theater that foregrounds its own presentational qualities, its specific mediality (theater as live performance) over its representational qualities (theater as mimesis); and (b) related to it, as a certain object quality in visual artworks that compels the spectators into an explicit relationship with the object itself. What these two definitions share is their acknowledgment of the presence of an audience and, in particular, the specific relationship between the performance/object and the viewer, which is seen as a constitutive part, if not the very focus of the performance/object. Theatricality, in this sense, is a useful tool to interrogate the intersection of content (taboo breaking), form (stereotype), tone (satire), and affect (audience reaction) in recent performances on slavery more closely.

In what follows, I bring this intersection into focus by discussing two artworks by Suzan-Lori Parks and Kara Walker: the above-mentioned 1996 production of Parks’s play Venus at the Yale Repertory and, subsequently, at the New York Public Theater, as well as a more recent work by Walker, her 2014 installation A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, at the Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (2014c). Parks’s and Walker’s oeuvres are particularly suitable to discussions of recent artistic engagements with slavery for two reasons: both artists emerged on the scene in the early 1990s and quickly garnered critical accolades, while at the same time provoking vehement debates among people of African descent about the poetics, politics, and ethics of representing slavery. In this regard, their work illustrates what Bertram Ashe has identified as one of the key characteristics of post-soul aesthetics: “blaxploration,” the “troubling” and “worrying” of received notions of blackness (2007, 614). As Ashe notes, post-soul works “stir it up, touch it, feel it out, and hold it up for examination in ways that depart significantly from previous—and necessary—preoccupations with struggling for political freedom, or with an attempt to establish and sustain a coherent black identity” (614). In the work of Parks and Walker, this troubling of blackness is particularly evident in their highly theatrical engagements with one of the most charged icons of slavery: the enslaved woman.

Venus: The Business of Looking and Showing

“Variously named Harriot, Phibba, Sara, Joanna, Rachel, Linda, and Sally, she is found everywhere in the Atlantic world. The barracoon, the hollow of the slave ship, the pest-house, the brothel, the cage, the surgeon’s laboratory, the prison, the cane-field, the kitchen, the master’s bedroom—turn out to be exactly the same place and in all of them she is called Venus” (Hartman 2008, 1). Saidiya Hartman here underlines the ubiquitous presence of the violated black woman in the archives of slavery, setting up the figure of Venus as “emblematic for the enslaved” (1). Yet as Hartman and other scholars have noted, recovering this presence and examining its legacies presents historians and artists alike with its own set of challenges. How to tell the story of Venus “without committing further violence in [one’s] own act of narration” (2), without duplicating the violence of words that have buried her in the archives to begin with, Hartman asks. Hortense Spillers adds that the black female body has been “so loaded with mythical prepossession that there is no easy way for the agents buried beneath them to come clean” (1987, 65). Having served throughout US history as “signifying property plus,” as “the locus of confounded identities, a meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasury of rhetorical wealth” (65), the black woman presents for Spillers at once the key lexical and yet most ambiguous figure in what she calls the “American grammar” (68), the symbolic order underwriting the United States.

Arlene Keizer, finally, points to a set of cultural taboos and discursive restrictions that have further complicated the task of representing black women in slavery. As Keizer notes, addressing the issue of sexuality and rape was nearly impermissible in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discussions of slavery and continued to hold a “terrifying power” in the twentieth century (2008, 1656). Faced with the pervasiveness of negative stereotypes of women’s sexuality, black women felt compelled to create what Darlene Clark Hine terms a “culture of dissemblance,” in which any form of sexual expression was downplayed or even denied (1989, 912). Hence, even as the figure of the abused black woman soon emerged as one of the key conceptual icons in the literary and visual neo-slave narratives of the second half of the twentieth century, making plain “the convergence of terror and pleasure in the libidinal economy of slavery” (Hartman 2008, 1), its depictions continued to be circumscribed, as Keizer points out, by rules of “decorous memorializing” (1989, 1650). Typically this meant depicting the icon of the raped female in the language of resistance and/or “unequivocal victimization” (Keizer 2008, 1650). Faith Ringgold’s Slave Rape Series (1970) or Octavia Butler’s portrayal of the slave Alice in Kindred (1979) are two powerful examples—works aiming, on the one hand, to articulate protest and outrage and, on the other, to initiate, through identificatory empathy, a process of mourning in the reader/observer (see Keizer 2008, 1656).

A brief glance at Parks’s and Walker’s works suffices to note that they evince little interest in “decorous memorializing.” Theirs are also decidedly not works of mourning. Rather, in retroping the emblematic Venus figure in provocative new ways, they seek to articulate a fresh relationship to the past (see Saal 2015). Taboos of gender and sexuality are tackled head-on. Moving beyond the vocabulary of resistance and victimization, the two artists seek to sketch out a wider spectrum of subject positions for black women under slavery. Walker’s work in particular is replete with female figures that seem to be compliantly yielding to sexual abuse, observing it with a detached curiosity, receiving pleasure and at times even asserting their sexual agency (see Keizer 2008, 1661). With Venus, Parks emphatically departs from the established historiography of Sara Baartman—a Khoisan woman infamously paraded around London and Paris in the 1810s as “The Hottentot Venus”—as victim and national hero (see Warner 2008). Instead, she presents her as a woman complicit in her own oppression, as experiencing intimacy and pleasure, perhaps even love, with one of her owners. Both Parks’s and Walker’s works thus index the “tangled moral quagmire” (Cameron 1997, 11) that also characterized the power system of slavery, in which demarcations between dominance and intimacy were sometimes anything but clear-cut. To be sure, as Spillers and other scholars have cautioned, to conceive of pleasure or even agency under conditions of non-freedom is highly problematic. And yet to foreclose the possibility of posing such questions seems equally problematic since it would delimit our access to and understanding of the archive. As Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson (2014) have recently maintained, the recurrent emphasis on subjugation, exploitation, and dehumanization does not capture the whole spectrum of women’s sexual lives under slavery. In this sense, Parks’s and Walker’s works attempt to sketch out the varied and messy terrain of subject relations and to pose uncomfortable questions about consent, complicity, agency, and pleasure in the libidinal economy of slavery.

In addition to sifting through the archive, highlighting taboos, and filling in gaps, these artists are also very much interested in how histories have been visually and discursively constructed and how they continue to be performed in the present. With their provocative use of tone, form, and media, Parks and Walker purposefully tap into the affective legacy of slavery, seeking to uncover contemporary audiences’ continued imaginative investment in it.

With Venus Parks zooms in on the various ways in which Sara Baartman, in her public role as “Hottentot Venus,” has come to serve as what Kianga Ford calls “a visual signpost” (2010, 100) for racial fantasies of the most extreme order. While numerous other women and men from the colonies were put on display in Europe in the nineteenth century (see Fusco 1994), Baartman’s buttocks and genitalia quickly came to signify inherent biological differences, and the “Hottentot” was eagerly set up as the iconic antithesis to white European sexual mores and aesthetic standards (see Gilman 1985). In resurrecting Baartman on stage, Parks aims to examine precisely the scopic mechanisms that contributed to inscribing a racist iconography on the black female body. Her goal is thus decidedly not to reconstruct the “truth” about the life of Baartman, nor to give testimony to her abuse—an expectation that a number of critics, however, brought to the play. In response to prominent dismissals of Parks’s and other artists’ restaging of Baartman as reobjectifications of the female body, Ford notes that contemporary representations of Venus are hardly ever “about accuracy, nor facticity but instead about the longevity of impressions, the perceptions of popular culture” (2010, 99).

Venus sets out to examine the history of racial fantasies and their legacies in contemporary culture in several interrelated ways. To begin with, the play highlights the economics of looking that construct Baartman as sexual, moral, and racial Other—in popular culture as well as in scientific discourse. In the play’s “Overture,” we find the character of The Venus prominently displayed on a small platform on stage, slowly revolving 360 degrees, while the rest of the cast stare at her and invite the audience—on and off stage—“to take yr peek” (Parks 1997, 5). At the same time, the onstage audience voices its abhorrence and fascination with The Venus’s body: “Good God. Golly. Lookie-Lookie-Look-at-her. / Ooh-la-la. What-a-find. Hubba-hubba-hubba” (6). The public’s rampant voyeurism and visual fetishization of Baartman is reiterated throughout the play in various settings—by paying clients in Mother Showman’s freak show, by courtroom inquirers into Baartman’s labor status, by scientific observers at the anatomical theater, and finally by the outraged mob outside her prison cell. In all these scenes, Parks focuses on The Venus’s constant exposure to the gawking, groping, and poking crowd. The opening scene also underlines that the pleasure derived from the spectacle of The Venus is motivated by a complex interweaving of erotic, moral, and racial imaginaries. The crowd’s voyeurism combines the attribution of absolute physical difference for the purpose of securing clear racial demarcations (“Wild Female Jungle Creature. Of singular anatomy. Physiqued / in such a backward rounded way that she outshapes / all others,” 5) with the concurrent sexual fetishization of this difference (“I’ll stick / my hand inside her / cage and have a feel / (if no one is looking),” 6). This dualism of fetishization and differentiation, phobia and pleasure is, as Homi Bhabha (1994) and Sander Gilman (1985) have pointed out, one of the key mechanisms of processes of racial stereotyping.

The play’s overture, then, already demonstrates the various visual mechanisms of exposition, scrutiny, consumption, and assessment at work in turning Baartman from an individual into an object of collective desire and anxiety. Moreover, drawing on various historical documents—diaries, court records, advertisement bills, and, most prominently, excerpts from a popular French melodrama, The Hottentot Venus, or Hatred of French Women (1814)—Parks demonstrates the extent to which Baartman captured the imagination of the metropolis in the early nineteenth century as well as the uses to which such blatant objectifications of black women’s bodies were put in the service of shoring up a white heteronormative, middle-class identity (see Mitchell 2010). The announcement at the start of the play that “Exposure iz what killed her” (Parks 1997, 3) thus resonates with a disconcerting double entendre, suggesting that Baartman perished not only by succumbing to various physical illnesses but also due to the relentless exposure to public scrutiny and consumption. This exposure continued well beyond her death with the dissection of her body, dissemination of her autopsy report, and display of her skeleton, brains, and genitalia at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris well into the second half of the twentieth century.

Furthermore, in foregrounding its theatricality, its very mediality as theater, Venus—particularly in the 1996 production by Richard Foreman—underlines the role of spectacle in forming and revising racial histories. Foreman’s mise-en-scène takes its cue from the popular freak shows and vaudeville acts of the nineteenth century, staging the play as a carnivalesque sideshow that assaults its audience with boisterous talk and flashy lights, a general bustling about and rapid scene transitions, as well as with wit and situational comedy. Throughout the performance the wires of theatrical production are patently visible, thus highlighting for the audience the very mechanisms at work in producing and performing The Hottentot Venus. At the same time, this funhouse atmosphere draws the spectators into the show, engrossing them in the historical spectacle onstage—a process underlined by frequent apostrophes to the audience (“The only living creature of her kind in the world / and only one step away from you right now / come see the Hot Miss Hottentot / step in step in,” 7). The relationship between audience and stage is moreover thematized and mirrored by the ongoing modeling of performer-spectator relations on stage: The Venus is being gawked at by The Chorus, which is being scrutinized by the Baron Docteur, who in turn is being watched by Venus herself, while all of them, including the audience, remain under the constant gaze of the show’s impresario, The Negro Resurrectionist—posing the question of who ultimately is being staged here.

Such theatrical doubling, inversion, and mirroring of spectatorship make it impossible to ignore one’s own complicity as a contemporary participant in the spectacularization of The Venus Hottentot. When The Venus revolves in the nude on stage, she signifies not only on a colonial history of scopic regimes and libidinal desires, but also on its enduring legacies in contemporary culture, where, as bell hooks (1992) suggests, a visual, sexual, or culinary fetish for Otherness frequently serves to consolidate the dominant, mostly white order. Lest contemporary audiences should fail to recognize their own complicity in the spectacle of The Venus, Parks drives home the point during the intermission by turning the tables and staging the audience. As the actor playing Baron Docteur—modeled on the French anatomist George Cuvier—invites the audience to take a break, he continues to read out Cuvier’s infamous report of the dissection of Baartman’s body. The audience is now caught in a double bind. Harry Elam and Alice Rayner observe: “To stay to hear the report is almost obscene…. To resist the lie of biological determinism and refuse to participate means leaving the theater. But leaving is also ignoring the fact of the textual reality that defined the meaning of her body” (1998, 277). One cannot escape participation, neither by staying nor by leaving. Hence, by foregrounding its mediality, Foreman’s production of Parks’s play becomes, in Steven Drukman’s words, “a profound tract about the power of theatre and the murderous implications of showing and gazing” (1996, 5). And it is precisely in this pronounced self-reflectivity that Venus undercuts, or attempts to undercut, a naïve iteration of nineteenth-century colonial visual regimes.

Finally, in addition to laying bare the mechanisms of looking, Venus is a play about showing. Parks calls it “a play about show business—the business of showing yourself” (quoted in Drukman 1996, 4). The trope of showmanship prominently features throughout the play, with various characters—The Negro Resurrectionist, The Mother-Showman, Baron Docteur—directing and emceeing the production of The Venus for the audiences on and off stage. The protagonist’s name “The Venus” is a stage name; in the beginning the character is simply referred to as The Girl, emerging as The Venus in mythological fashion from a bath given to her by The Mother Showman. Notably, despite her bondage to a series of owner-showmen, Parks’s Venus character is keenly attuned to the business of being put on display, determined to “make a mint” (Parks 1997, 75). When business is slow, she suggests to The Mother-Showman that she could “spruce up” their act (51) by reciting some poetry, and with Baron Docteur she actually negotiates the terms of her sexual submission. While The Venus’s repeated question “Do I have a choice?” (17, 87) accentuates her awareness of the limits of her agency, she hardly emerges as a victim in this play. Instead, Parks presents her as a complex figure, a performer who is both aware of her own commodification but also seeks to benefit from it, a bonded woman both complicit with and resistant to the power structures that objectify her. Parks notes, “I didn’t want to make her a victim…. So I tried to give her little things—she can count and she can wheel and deal, and later, when things are a bit better for her … how she enjoys showing herself off, how she’s so thrilled with herself” (Chaudhuri 2014, 56–57). Notably, even though The Venus seems aware of the ways in which her body is inscribed into a colonial regime of economic and epistemic power, she concludes the play with the articulation of her own erotic desire: “Kiss me Kiss me Kiss me Kiss me” (Parks 1997, 162, emphasis in original).

Above all, Parks’s Venus looks back at those seeking to discipline and consume her—on and off stage. In the courtroom scene, The Venus proudly parades in front of the court, refusing to feel shame, thrusting her buttocks in their faces: “To hide yr shame is evil. / I show mine. Would you like to see?” (76). Moments like this one, in which The Venus deliberately poses her body for lawyers, doctors, clients, and, by extension, the contemporary audience to gaze at, present the most difficult and pregnant moments in the play, conjoining complicity with resistance. As Elam and Rayner explain, “The pose is … a sign of consciousness and knowledge. The object of surveillance knows the power that belongs to the focal point of the gaze; she accepts awareness of being watched and develops that awareness into a decisive pose or attitude that holds the spectator in its power” (1998, 278). In posing, then, the subject refracts the gaze that seeks to discipline and consume her and effectively turns her observers into the observed.

The pronounced theatricality of Parks’s play thus makes clear that Venus, as Michele Wallace puts it, is at once “archaeological and devilishly playful” (1996, 31). As it playfully digs up the history of exposing, abusing, and consuming the black female body, it also takes a satirical dig at our continuing investment in this history. Continuously reflecting back in its self-reflective use of the very mediality of theater the conscious and unconscious projections and expectations of its spectators, Venus presents, as Elam and Rayner observe, “a test of the audience, not for the audience” (1998, 278, italics in original). The Venus’s invitation to “Please visit” (Parks 1997, 161), which concludes the play, might very well be read as a challenge to its viewers to confront the residues of colonial visual and libidinal designs that continue to inform existing notions of race and gender.

The Marvelous Sugar Baby: An Audience

Similar to Parks’s play Venus, Kara Walker’s installation A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014c) can be considered an extended pose designed to expose the “representation of the representation” (Elam and Rayner 1998, 279) of the black female body to contemporary audiences. There is nothing subtle about this seventy-five-foot-long, thirty-foot-high, twenty-six-foot-wide sculpture in the shape of a sphinx with prominent African facial features, a substantial female bosom, a massive behind, and exposed vulva—all of it coated in some forty tons of refined, white sugar. Similar to The Venus, the sugar sphinx thrusts her body into spectators’ faces, overwhelms with the sweet smell of molasses, and irritates with her iteration of racist stereotypes. Exhibited for eight weeks in the late spring of 2014 at the abandoned Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn under the elaborate title At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: 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, Walker’s sphinx is both visual allegory and theatrical event, signifying on the economic and representational history of sugar plantation slavery as well as the impact of its legacies on today’s economy and culture.

The sculpture’s allegorical character is indicated already by its title: A Subtlety. In the tradition of medieval and early modern confectionary sculptures (called sotiltees or subtleties), Walker creates with the Sugar Baby a culinary allegory, which like the elaborate animal figurines and sugar buildings that graced the aristocratic tables of Europe from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries is designed to convey power and privilege and to signify the host’s intent (see Mintz 1986, 89). As indicated by the sphinx’s elaborate title and location, with this particular subtlety Walker intends to pay homage, on the occasion of the demolition of the Domino Plant—one of the oldest refineries in the United States and once the largest in the world—“to the unpaid and overworked artisans” who in the cane fields and kitchens of the New World enabled the production and accumulation of capital in the hands of those few who can now afford to outsource production, to convert a workspace into an art exhibit, and to transform a factory into upscale condominiums. Her work partakes in this regard in the dismantling of what Édouard Glissant has called “the notion of a single History” (1999, 3)—that is, the Hegelian narrative of progress, which effectively erases the very labor sustaining it. In pointing up the subaltern labor consumed and wasted in the name of growth and expansion, Walker proposes an alternative historiography that brings into focus the foundations of today’s economy.

As the explicit reference to “unpaid and overworked” labor makes clear, Walker locates slavery at the heart of the profitable colonial sugar economy that fueled Anglo-American expansion and growth from the early sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. Her artwork here picks up on relevant late twentieth-century scholarship in the field of economic and cultural history, most notably Sidney Mintz’s landmark study Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), which posits the history of sugar as the history of capitalism par excellence. More important, placing her giant sugar sculpture into what Walker perceives as the cathedral-like space of industrial capitalism (the factory; see Walker 2014b), soon to be converted into the cathedral-like spaces of neoliberal consumption (condominiums), the artist insists that slavery has not only enabled and shadowed the emergence of modern capitalism but that its ghosts continue to haunt today’s post-industrial economy, its legacies persistently evident in contemporary structures of production, distribution, and consumption.

Further, with its pronounced racial features, Walker’s sphinx responds to Mintz’s observation of “the mysteriousness that accompanied my seeing, at one and the same time, cane growing in the fields and white sugar in my cup” (1986, xxiv). For Walker, it is the racialized body that produces this mysterious transition. Provocatively combining in her sculpture notions of whiteness (the gleaming whiteness of refined sugar, the projected whiteness of the metropolitan middle-class consumer) with notions of blackness (the color of crude molasses, the color of the colonial, laboring body), she brings into focus the white consumption of black labor. Sugar was, as Vincent Brown pointedly asserts, “a murderous commodity” (2008, 118). The labor and lives of slaves that went into the production of sugar sustained not only the wealth of the British mercantile class but also, as Mintz has shown, from the eigtheenth century onward “the energy needs” of the working class (Brown 2008, 118). West Indian sugar, particularly in combination with East Indian tea, was quite literally feeding the English proletariat. In Walker’s subaltern historiography, it is therefore the productivity and consumability of the black body that fuels the engine of Anglo-American capitalism.

From this perspective, Walker’s sugar sculpture offers a powerful allegory for the long, racial history of sugar and its economic legacies. But the artist engages this history also in more affective and performative ways. Given the sculpture’s monumentality and central positioning on the factory floor, the sphinx functions as a performer of sorts; even as she does not move, her very size and stillness create a situation that implicates the spectator. In this regard, The Marvelous Sugar Baby constitutes more than an art object. Drawing her beholders into what Wilmar Sauter (2000) calls a “theatrical event,” Walker also affects them in her theatricality.

Michael Fried uses the term theatricality to highlight an intrinsic quality of what he calls “literalist” modern conceptualist artworks. Creating “a kind of stage presence” (Fried 1998, 155, emphasis in original), these works trigger for him the experience “of an object in a situation—one that, virtually by definition, includes the beholder” (153, emphasis in original). While for Fried such theatricality presents the very antithesis of art (true art/high art would make the very notion of the beholder obsolete), his definition proves useful for examining the relationship between object and beholder. Theatricality is “a function not just of the obtrusiveness and, often, even of the aggressiveness of literalist work, but of the special complicity that that work extorts from its beholder…. [T]he beholder knows himself to stand in an indeterminate, open-ended—and unexacting—relation as subject to the impassive object on the wall or floor” (155, emphasis in original). Considering Walker’s sphinx in her theatricality therefore enables us to take into account not only the sculpture’s objectness and the various symbolic, historical meanings encoded in it, but above all its aesthetic presence, its concrete sensory meaning to those perceiving it, and with it also the very subjectness of the beholder. This awareness is anything but unexacting. As Sauter explains, theatricality is “the communicative process between the performer’s exhibitory, encoded, and embodied actions and the emotional and intellectual reactions of the spectator” (2000, 69). Reading A Subtlety as a theatrical event hence means to shift attention from the allegorical character of the artwork to the complex processes of interaction between the object/performer and spectator—particularly to those that bring into focus the racialization of the performing/laboring body.

Here Walker’s provocative deployment of racial stereotypes is important. As a form of knowledge, the stereotype hinges on the interplay of difference and identification and thus highlights precisely the relation between subject and object (see Bhabha 1994, 70). The Marvelous Sugar Baby is a composite of two distinct stereotypes. While the handkerchiefed head evokes the mythical domestic caregiver (the Mammy, Aunt Jemima), selflessly nurturing and sustaining the white middle-class family, the exposed and protruding vulva in the sculpture’s back signifies on the equally mythical, hypersexualized slave mistress (Jezebel, Venus), seen as promiscuous and readily available to white appetites.1 The focus of much of the critique leveled at Walker, her provocative use of racial stereotypes adds further layers to the artist’s signifying on the colonial history of sugar planation slavery: it brings into focus a history of visual representation that evolved out of this colonial economy and provokes its spectators to engage with this history. Stereotypes in Walker’s art (and here the argument could be extended to her controversial silhouettes as well) thus function to conjoin historical inquiry with theatrical affect.

Racial history is intricately interlinked with the history of representation. According to Robert Reid-Pharr, “Our journey back to the founding moments of Black American identity is one that takes us not simply through the museum but also across the minstrel stage” (2002, 35). Walker likewise speaks of the “collusion of fact and fiction” (Armstrong 1997, 107) in the engagement with slavery and its legacies, which she aims to draw attention to with her work. With Sugar Baby she points to a prevalent tradition in Western art and culture dedicated to the production and mythologization of whiteness precisely through visual constructions of crude blackness—a tradition that has its roots in the colonial economy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As Kay Diane Kriz has shown, when at the height of colonial sugar production British refineries labored to extract the purest forms of white sugar from the crude muscovado produced in the colonies, British artists also labored to sustain notions of white supremacy by drawing up and maintaining clear cultural and moral boundaries between a metropolitan “culture of refinement” and colonial rudeness (2008, 4). Ironically, this required keeping the black body persistently visually present, albeit in the abject positions of submission, inferiority, crudity, debasement, and immorality. Phillis Wheatley signified on such scopic regimes of differentiation in her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1773), pointing up the complex intersection of moral, aesthetic, and economic demands on blackness in her deliberate pun on “caine/cane” and the double entendre of the verb “refin’d.” Contemporary examples of the visual legacy of these colonial regimes include Édouard Manet’s iconoclastic 1865 painting Olympia and David Selznick’s staging of Hattie McDaniel as the stereotypical Mammy figure attending to Vivien Leigh’s Scarlet O’Hara in the 1939 film epic Gone with the Wind. In both works the black female body (marked by its dark color and crudeness of form) serves to highlight the delicacy and refinement (and hence the supposed superiority) of the white woman—regardless of whether she is presented as a southern belle or a fallen flower of the demimonde. The black female attendant, by contrast, is reduced to mere stereotypical features, which interpellate her into the colonial regime of visual power in terms of race, class, and sexuality. She is deprived of subjectivity, her history erased to allow for the blazing projection of whiteness.

Walker’s sphinx cites and challenges such regimes of articulation by refusing to keep blackness and whiteness (and their associated values) neatly distinct: Is her sculpture rendering the white goddess of refinement in blackface, or are we encountering a black goddess (the ancient Sphinx of the Nile) in whiteface? What constitutes whiteness and what blackness here, and to what extent are these very notions contingent on each other? Arguably, it is precisely such undecidability that invites spectators to reflect on the relational processes involved in the scopic and libidinal production of racial categories, along with their own positioning in them.

Furthermore, in conjoining racial ambivalence with the tropes of hypersexualized femininity, Walker serves up another set of desires, historically codified in the visual icon of the mulatta. In colonial pictorial productions, so Kriz explains, the figure of the mulatress has traditionally served to “provoke the fantasy of possessing a body that both is and is not white, bearing the marks of refined whiteness and the promise of savage sexual pleasure, so closely associated with blackness” (2008, 55). Moreover, the sexual craving for Otherness has frequently been reified by placing the trope of the mulatress in a metonymic relation with the trope of sugar. With her sugarcoated, hypersexual body, The Marvelous Sugar Baby playfully signifies on this history and brings to the fore its legacies in contemporary culture. As Walker points out, there is “the sort of Rolling Stones-y brown sugar dovetailing of sex and slavery as it reaches the American imagination” (Rooney 2014), which has found conscious and subconscious expression in various forms of popular culture, particularly where representations of black women are concerned. “What about the possibility that I might reflect those fantasies back into the projector’s unsuspecting eyes, and cause them to want to face the shame of (our) collective psyche?” Walker asks (Lott 2000, 71). Her hyperbolic use of racial stereotypes, then, serves not only to signify on a history of racial representations but also to bring this history home to contemporary audiences. Along with the sculpture’s sheer size and suggestive materiality, the use of stereotypes forces spectators into an affective relation with the art object, challenging them to reflect on their own “special complicity” (Fried 1998, 155) with the sculpture’s shape and materiality. Similar to Parks’s Venus, Walker’s sugar sphinx serves as a test of the audience.

As a subtlety, The Marvelous Sugar Baby is meant to be consumed. The sculpture foregrounds this consumability in materiality, form, and title and in this manner gives shape to prevalent fantasies about the consumability of the black body (in economic, visual, and sexual terms), challenging audiences to take what bell hooks mockingly calls “a bit of the Other” (1992, 29). Given the Sugar Baby’s enormous size and not-too-subtle signifying on the fraught histories of physical and mimetic exploitations of the black body, one may assume that this particular culinary treat would not go down so easily, that it might cause what Kyla Wazana Tompkins (2012) calls “racial indigestion.” Many of the visitors, however, exhibited no such digestive concerns in engaging with the sculpture, as evidenced by the swarm of Sugar Baby selfies posted on Instagram, showing people in various suggestive poses of ogling, fondling, and licking the sphinx—reactions that were immediately countered by vehement Internet outcries and on-site interventions (see Callahan 2014; Goodman 2014).

Arguably, it is precisely this wide spectrum of reactions—the various forms of insolence, silliness, curiosity, bafflement, outrage, and awe marking contemporary engagements with the history of slavery—that was to be brought into focus by Walker’s installation. The theatrical space of the sphinx required movement, provoked touching, and invited photography. Numerous online commentaries suggest that observing other visitors’ interactions with the art object enhanced spectators’ understanding of their own reactions to the sculpture and the laden history it represents. Ultimately then, it was the audience that was staged in the theatrical event of the sugar sphinx. The sculpture was demolished after eight weeks; a few weeks later the former refinery was as well. What remains is a short film about the event, in which Walker has recorded the visitors’ various interactions with the Sugar Baby, a film provocatively entitled An Audience (2014a). In it, Walker draws particular attention to the various ways spectators observe each other observing and interacting with the artwork.

The audience is at the heart of Walker’s and Parks’s as well as a number of other contemporary performances on slavery, particularly those that deploy racial stereotypes. In 2001 Keith Obadike challenged users of the World Wide Web by posting his “blackness” for sale on eBay. With an opening bid of $10, the auction reached $152.50 before it was censored as inappropriate by eBay and taken down. In 2003 damali ayo similarly implemented an Internet rental platform, where she offered stereotypical performances of blackness for sale to online clients. In the course of nine years she received scores of responses—both naïve requests for services as well as notes thanking her for this effective satire (see ayo 2005). A year later ayo followed up with the interactive street performance called Living Flag: Panhandling for Reparations (2004). Sitting on city sidewalks, she asked white passersby to donate money for reparations, which she promptly redistributed to black pedestrians.

Performances like these provoke audiences to react: knowingly, naively, and often simply with a vague, unreflective, but highly visceral experience of affect, which later on might turn into embarrassment, indignation, protest, or admiration. As Walker remarked about her art, “I didn’t want a completely passive viewer…. I wanted to make work where the viewer wouldn’t walk away; he would either giggle nervously, get pulled into history, into fiction, into something totally demeaning and possibly very beautiful” (quoted in Cameron 1997, 84). It is this nervous giggle of discomfort that most exposes the extent to which the history of slavery is not closed but continues to affect viewers through its various legacies. In eliciting and playing up the “special complicity” of the audience with the artworks and the histories and legacies they represent, these playful, painful, and highly theatrical contemporary performances on slavery aim to hold up a mirror to viewers, in which to reflect their own subject positions vis-à-vis the long history of New World slavery.


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(1) The stereotypical character of the sphinx is amplified by a swarm of brown boy figurines, toting cane, molasses, and bananas for her. Walker modeled these figures in the image of Black Memorabilia, available for purchase on the Internet (see Thompson 2014).