The Subtleties of Mammy Honoring Ceremonies

 

The Subtlety Front

Kara Walker’s The Subtlety has attracted widespread acclaim but has serious conflicts that need to be discussed. 

Artist Kara Walker’s first large-scale public project is officially titled, “At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: The 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.”

Having read interviews featuring Walker’s explanation of the piece, it appears to possess elements of both success and missed opportunities. The Subtlety is recognized by many as a sphinx built in the image of a “Mammy” like caricature. The sphinx is jarring. It makes people want to pay attention or at least ask questions. Her explanations are continuing a conversation about the horrors of the sugar industry’s past.

In a recent interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Walker provided further prospective about the massive “sugar baby” :

She is basically a New World sphinx. A New World thinking of the sugar plantations, the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that sort of Rolling Stones-y brown sugar dovetailing of sex and slavery as it reaches the American imagination.

Walker was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered as well:

She’s doing what she does best: drawing you in with something sweet, something almost charming, before you realize you’ve admired something disturbing. In this case, that’s the horror-riddled Caribbean slave trade that helped fuel the industrial gains of the 18th and 19th centuries; a slave trade built to profit from an insatiable Western market for refined sugar treats and rum.

“Basically, it was blood sugar,” Walker says. “Like we talk about blood diamonds today, there were pamphlets saying this sugar has blood on its hands.”

She explains that to make the sugar, the cane had to be fed into large mills by hand. It was a dangerous process: Slaves lost hands, arms, limbs and lives.

“I’ve been kind of back and forth with my reverence for sugar,” Walker says. “Like, how we’re all kind of invested in its production without really realizing just what goes into it; how much chemistry goes into extracting whiteness from the sugar cane.”

The problem with Walker’s sphinx is that the acts of oppression during the slave trade were disturbing but the enslaved Africans were not themselves disturbing. So why continue the distortion of their image? She ends up reinforcing what she seeks to dismantle. How do we honor people who lost “hands, arms and limbs and lives” with further misrepresentations of their identities?

When critically looking at this work of art, we recognize Walker as an artistic genius. Yet even in this framework, when discussing the legacy and horrors of the sugar industry she chose to magnify the mythical overly used “Mammy” imagery. We keep coming back to something that was never truly us.

However, this issue is deeper than Kara Walker’s work. It’s been done before…this mammy honoring ceremony.  This issue speaks to the internalized limitations of imagination among artists and writers when it comes to the African descended lived experience. Lingering onto falsehoods, attempting to manipulate structures in its honor is counterproductive and often representative of an internalized glass ceiling of thought.

We can be something different because we are something different.

I’m not suggesting an attempt at ignoring the history of the “Mammy” caricature but instead I’m interested in what it would look like if Walker went beyond the restraints of this mythical being when it comes to examining the lives of enslaved African artisans.

Subtlety Back

To a certain degree, I understand the appeal of the exaggerated features of the half woman, half beast sphinx. The history of the extravagant sugar sculptures called subtleties, that were bolstered through slave labor is very important. Furthermore, featuring the genitalia of the sphinx can be viewed as taking a jab at the presumed asexuality of the “Mammy” caricature, while also perhaps conjuring images of both sexual abuse and desire. It’s crude and perhaps it’s meant to be.

Yet, the symbolism of this piece is stifled by it’s misplaced distortion and a missed opportunity to unearth what’s often hidden. In this case it would be the Black woman undistorted and unexaggerated. A jewel in her own right, without the need of leaning on identity stripping myths for significance or shock value. We can be both beautiful in our nakedness and whole in our humanity while also critiquing disturbing histories.

Showing Black women as full human beings in a holistic framework is more revolutionary than torturing old caricatures like “Mammy” ever could be…and far more valuable. When we unearth and magnify our ancestors’ true identities, outside of modes of mass societal miseducation, it will be a powerful day.

 

Please do not republish this article without specific, written permission from Jessica Ann Mitchell.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

 

The Subtlety display is available for public viewing until July 6th. Full details available here

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7 thoughts on “The Subtleties of Mammy Honoring Ceremonies

  1. Thanks for writing about this. I’ve been seeing it everywhere online. I am unsure what to think about this exhibit.

  2. I appreciated your comments. In light of the sermon given by an African american pastor this weekend, i am ever more mindful of my image as a Black woman in this culture. Thank you for sharing.

  3. First, I wanted to thank you for sharing your opinion on this. I am an artist myself and am familiar with Kara Walker’s work. It has always made me feel very uncomfortable. The stereotypical images that fill her work are upsetting, and so are many of the grotesque scenarios her silhouetted figures enact. Yet somehow her work gets accolades and she keeps getting more and more opportunities to showcase her slave imagery. I totally agree with you that “Showing Black women as full human beings in a holistic framework is more revolutionary than torturing old caricatures like ‘Mammy’ ever could be.” I don’t find Walker’s work revolutionary at all. I feel like all she does is perpetuate the same old stereotypes. It saddens me to think that her foam and sugar sculpture is quite possibly the largest one ever made of an African-American woman.

    Betye Saar, the artist who made a name for herself with a powerful piece called “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” basically called Kara Walker out for her apparent self-hatred and actually had a letter-writing campaign in which she told prominent museums around the country not to show her work. Though I think that a call for censorship is extreme, I can understand Saar’s concerns. Spike Lee warned us about this in Bamboozled.

  4. You made some great points! I’ve def been feeling that the work falls short of getting past the status quo and especially felt this in person as I watched visitors consume and objectify the work in all the glory of a Hottentot event. I feel politically it’s done something for female artists of the west but conceptually it’s just didn’t get to where it could have gone…

  5. Pingback: Be Careful What You Believe About Yourself‏ | Our Legaci

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