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“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker: The Art Installation Essay (Review)

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Updated: May 26th, 2022

A Subtlety is an art installation by Kara Walker featuring a sugar-coated sculpture of a sphinx-like woman resembling the Great Sphinx of Giza with its size and material. Since the statue is made of sugar, it is a temporary artwork, which will remain only in the pictures and in the memories of those who observed it. The similarity of the artwork to the ancient Egyptian statue reminds me of the metaphor of digging used by Benjamin Walter (2006) to describe the process of exploring the past through memory. The abandoned building of the former sugar factory refreshes the memories of the long-forgotten era of slavery, while the sculpture depicts the black women who used to work there.

The artwork addresses cultural and historical impacts of slavery and their reflection in the American public memory. The installation of monumental scale is located at the site of the former Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and commemorates the slaves who worked at the factory (Smith, 2014). The sculpture is a monument to the dark history of slavery and the sugar trade, causing the spread of discrimination and racism, which makes the artwork relevant. Walker shows how slave ownership and trade put the shade on the Americans of all races and how racism is still present years after the emancipation.

The artist utilized polystyrene, sugar, and molasses since the materials imitate the texture of limestone used in the Great Sphynx and serve as a metaphor for the issue of sugar-coating of American history. The art medium creates the authentic atmosphere of a sugar factory, as the structure produces a sweet and rotting smell and refers to the decay of the American society at the times of slavery. White color was selected for the sculpture to reflect the quality of light, while little black figures of boys made of molasses create the contrast between light and dark, raw and

cooked. The dark walls of the former factory covered with rust contrast with the radiant white sculpture. The expansive space of the factory allowed Kara Walker to create a large three-dimensional monument underlining the significance of the public memory as opposed to the sugar-coated history written by white Americans.

The concept of the artwork based on the conflict between public memory and the sugar-coating of history is related to Freud’s definition of screen memory. Freud suggested that a screen memory “comes to mind in the place of, and in order to conceal, an associated but repressed memory” (Burgin, 2012, p. 179). Kara Walker tried to expose the problem of screen memory in history, which replaces the tragedy and suffering fixed in the public memory of African Americans with the positive image of the era. Thus, public memory does not recover the events as they happened but preserves the way they were perceived by people, while history merely describes the facts, which might be false.

The art of Kara Walker reflects the degrading nature of slavery and its place in the collective memory of the American people. The artist is famous for her comedic wall installations depicting black slaves with their white slaveholders in the American South, as well as the statue of Abraham Lincoln, who advocated against slavery (Smith, 2014). Walker combines metaphor with reality to demonstrate how the slavery business enriched white Americans, but damaged African Americans and resulted in the widespread issue of racism and discrimination. The problem of sugar-coated history is the reoccurring motif in the artworks by Kara Walker, who exposes exploitation and degradation imprinted on the collective memory of African Americans, but sometimes forgotten or ignored by others.

Esme Timbery, Shellwork Slippers, 2008

Shellwork Slippers is an artwork by the Bidjigal artist Esme Timbery, which consists of 200 pairs of colourful children’s slippers decorated with shells and glitter. The installation embodies the personal memories of Timbery, who dedicated the art piece to her grandmother’s craftsmanship and the generations of Aboriginal women connected by the art of shellwork. According to Gilchrist (2016), for Indigenous Australians “the new has no meaning without the old” (p. 19). Thus, the artwork provokes the memories of travel, beaches, and oceans, while it is also an homage to the traditional Aboriginal practices of shellwork passed down from mothers to daughters.

The work is a memorial to the Stolen Generations, which reflects Timbery’s experience with the cruel policy of the Australian government resulting in the removal of thousands of Aboriginal children from their families. The policy remains in the public memory of the small community of Indigenous Australians as a tragedy (Kembrey, 2018). The measure promoted by the government to supply the cheap workforce for wealthy households limited the ability of the children to receive education and reconnect with their parents.

The artwork is made of shell, glitter, fabric, cardboard, and glue. The medium allowed the artist to connect the traditional materials with modern art supplies, which might be considered as a bridge between the past and the present of the Indigenous Australians. The shells were specifically collected from the waters of La Perouse area where the artist grew up and began her craftsmanship. The slippers serve as a reference to the children abducted from their families, while colourful fabric represents the artist’s hope for their well-being and her attempt to preserve the memory of the victims.

The concept of screen memories by Freud might explain the artist’s use of children’s sleepers in the artwork related to Timbery’s individual memories and the collective memory of the Indigenous Australians. According to Burgin (2012), the childhood memories “acquire the significance” of screen memories and draw an analogy with the public memory and its legends and myths (p. 182). The artwork was heavily influenced by the Indigenous Australians’ conceptions of time and memory, which connect “both the ancestral and natural worlds” (Gilchrist, 2016, p. 19). Indigenous people and their artefacts are often ignored or excluded by cultural institutions, such as museums and art galleries, which gradually erase their presence from the collective memory of the Australians. Thus, the artist’s goal was to preserve the traditional techniques of shellwork and display the art of the Indigenous Australians to the public in order to oppose its removal from history and the present.

The art of Esme Timbery combines her childhood experiences of crafting with her grandmother, a renowned shell worker, and the collective memory of the Indigenous Australians affected by the tragedy of the Stolen Generations. The Bidjigal artist aims to preserve the tradition of shellwork because of its ability to connect several generations of the Indigenous Australian women who left behind the artefacts representing their unique culture (Kembrey, 2018). Timbery also takes inspiration from her memories of childhood trips to the beach with her mother and aunts and selling her first works at Paddy’s Markets.

Ai Weiwei, Coca Cola Vase, 2007

Coca Cola Vase is the artwork by an artist and activist Ai Weiwei that bears the logo of the famous soft drink. The vase presents the combination of the old and the new, while it also serves as a striking cultural and political statement. As the collective memory is based on symbols, the artist demonstrates how the memory of the Chinese nation based on unique philosophy and traditions is being replaced with new ideas instilled by globalization. The meaning of the artwork is open to interpretation, as some may find it beautiful and original, while others might view it as disrespectful to Chinese history and promoting consumerism.

The ancient Chinese vase is used by the dissident artist to reveal the problem of China’s rapid growth and its transformation into one of the largest consumer markets in the world. As economic progress requires more goods to be produced and sold, many Chinese cities like Beijing are being reconstructed. Art is the medium for Ai Weiwei to express his concerns with the actions of the Chinese government that demolishes or reconstructs traditional courtyards, hutongs, and replaces entire historical districts with new buildings (Benson, 2019). Thus, the artwork shows the destructive impact of Western capitalism or the communism that infiltrated the traditional Eastern culture as illustrated by the famous logo that ruins the ancient vase.

The artist used the acrylic paint over the Han-dynasty vase. The contemporary material with its bright red colour produced a dramatic contrast with the ancient Chinese vase and its natural shade. The medium creates the effect that the historically significant and expensive vase is lost behind the American emblem of consumerism (Benson, 2019). The vase was recycled by the artist and lost its original historical value, but acquired the new quality of a cultural counter-memory artefact. Alternatively, the artist’s choice of red colour might be interpreted as a reference to the Communist party that had a great impact on the culture and public memory of the Chinese nation.

Ai Weiwei’s art reflects his refusal to accept the fact that every aspect of life in China, including public memory, is controlled and regulated by the communist government. Walter (2006) states that genuine memory must “yield an image of the person who remembers”, but for Ai, the government shapes and alters the memories, not individuals (p. 576). The artist’s strained relationship with consumerism also stems from his attitude to pubic memory. The vase demonstrates the ability of the consumer culture to bury the traditions and memories of the nation, which creates confusion and helps to maintain a certain ideology. Therefore, Ai Weiwei’s counter-memory might be regarded as an instrument for excavating the authentic memories of the Chinese and restoring the culture to its original state.

Ai Weiwei’s counter-memory stems from his family’s past and their fight for justice. The artist’s private memory of China at the times of Maoist communism is different from the collective memory of many other Chinese citizens. Ai’s father was an artist and poet who was imprisoned and sent to a labour camp for his criticism of the government (Hattenstone, 2020). As a dissident artist and activist, Ai Weiwei follows his father’s steps and refuses to accept the duality of the government that alters historical facts and imposes the totalitarian political regime. The artist stands up against the Western consumerism erasing culturally-significant artefacts of the past from the collective memory of the Chinese. Ai was punished for his anti-communist views when his art studio in Beijing’s hutongs was destroyed by the officials, so he left China in 2015 seeking refuge in Germany.

References

Benson, L. (2019). Elephant. Web.

Burgen, V. (2012). Strange temporalities. In I. Farr (Ed.), Memory (pp. 176–183). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gilchrist, S. (Ed.). (2016). Everywhen: The eternal present in indigenous art from Australia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums.

Hattenstone, S. (2020). The Guardian. Web.

Kembrey, M. (2018). The Sydney Morning Herald. Web.

Smith, Roberta. (2014). The New York Times. Web.

Walter, B. (2006). Excavation and memory. In M. Bullock and M. W. Jennings (Eds.), Selected writings (vol. 2) (p. 576). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

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