Q&A: Kara Walker on the bit of sugar sphinx she saved, video she’s making
It’s not very often that an artist talk sells out with the swiftness of a high-profile pop concert. But that was the case for a highly anticipated talk between artist Kara Walker, who is known for her phantasmagoric cut-paper installations, and filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who is at work on a biopic about Martin Luther King Jr. The pair was teamed up by the Broad as part of the museum’s “Un-Private Collection” artist talk series. Within eight hours of putting the tickets on sale this summer, every last one was gone.
For good reason: It’s not every day the art industry gets an opportunity to hear two prominent African American women talk about the whys and hows of their creative process. The appearance also follows Walker’s sensational installation of a massive sugar sphinx at the old Domino Sugar factory in New York, a commission for the arts nonprofit Creative Time. The piece, known in shorthand as “A Subtlety” (its real name is infinitely longer), consisted of a 75-foot-long menacing mammy figure crafted entirely out of ghostly white sugar.
In their funny, raw and meandering chat (which I’ve embedded in this post), Walker and DuVernay discussed the sculpture’s genesis, the challenges of working with sugar as a material and the visceral feelings that inspire some of Walker’s imagery.
“I do what I’m feeling and what I’m feeling is monstrous,” Walker told DuVernay. “And I do it in the nicest possible way.”
Before the artists took the stage at the Writers Guild Theater on Saturday, I chatted with the congenial Walker at her Westwood hotel. She told me about the fate of her sugar sphinx, the ways in which she spied on people taking selfies in front of it, and the one piece of the sculpture that she has managed to save.
“A Subtlety” inspired any number of essays, in particular one on the website Colorlines that reflected on how this nude black female figure was being ogled primarily by white audiences. What’s your take on that?
That is part of an ongoing debate about black creativity, through the 20th and now the 21st century. It’s, “Who is looking?” And it’s always been the same answer for the most part. How do people look? How are people supposed to look? Are white audiences looking at it in the right way? And are black audiences looking to see this piece? And, of course, my question is: What is the right way to look at a piece that is full of ambiguities and ego and all the other things that go into making a monumental sculpture?
It’s no different from Zora Neale Hurston. There’s always this question: “Is she using language in a way that is demeaning to black people? Is it a throwback for her to be using colloquial Southern speech? Is it capitulating to the demand of white audiences who want to hear black people in a particular way? Or is it speaking her truth? And is that allowed as a black artist? Are we allowed to be individuals within this sea? Or do we have to be unified in this collective?
There was also the question of how people reacted to the statue. There was a lot of talk (and more essays) about all of the vulgar selfies people were taking in front of your sphinx. What’s your view?
I put a giant 10-foot vagina in the world and people respond to giant 10-foot vaginas in the way that they do. It’s not unexpected. Maybe I’m sick. Sometimes I get a sort of kick out of the hyper essay writing, that there’s gotta be this way to sort of control human behavior. [But] human behavior is so mucky and violent and messed-up and inappropriate. And I think my work draws on that. It comes from there. It comes from responding to situations like that, and it pulls it out of an audience. I’ve got a lot of video footage of that [behavior]. I was spying.
I understand you sent a video team to the site to record everyone. What are you going to do with the footage?
I’m working on [a piece about it] now. I want to tell about the gathering of this piece. Overall, it was a very positive environment. Large groups of people came, families came, grandmothers came, little kids — things that don’t happen very often around contemporary art. Overall, my sense is that [something] is gonna happen. [Laughs.] People are stupid, but the greater majority are conscientious, if not always respectful, and they are aware of one another’s presence in the room.
What happened to the sphinx piece after the show came down?
She was knocked down over a week period. I think they started the next day [after the show closed] with forklifts. I have a piece. There’s one piece left: her left hand. And I’m going to show it. I have a show coming up in November, at the New York gallery where I show: Sikkema Jenkins.
You mentioned earlier the question of ego in this work. Generally, it is male artists who are known for and expected to work on this scale. How was this process for you as a woman?
I don’t know. It’s such an anomaly. I felt like I had to draw on the early industrialists. This wasn’t just going to be about, “We’re all [messed] up and we’re all gonna die and we’re all trafficking in other people’s bodies.” [Laughs.] We were also building something fantastic. So I had to go with that spirit: “We’re going to change the world and we’re going to do it like this!”
But the gist of the piece was that it wouldn’t be rebuilt again, that it would never happen again. It was ephemeral. You build these monuments, but they’re really castles in the sand. It’s like sugar. It evaporates and goes away. I think that side of it, the disappearance of it, the absence of it, that’s something the proverbial male artist isn’t doing. The quintessential monument sculptors build something to stand for ever and ever or [create something] to be rebuilt and reconstructed in some other form. That’s not what I’m doing.
[For the upcoming show at Sikkema] I’m trying to understand the sort of absence of the piece through the beginning stages, with people viewing it, then viewing themselves viewing it, then viewing each other viewing it, then its demise.
The imagery you employ has been heavily critiqued by some black artists, such as Betye Saar, who led a letter-writing campaign against your work back in the ‘90s. Has there been any sort of rapprochement with her over the years?
I had a dream, not too long ago, when I was working on the piece at the Domino Sugar plant, that I was rummaging through my closet and I found a gift or I found a package and it was Betye Saar’s. It was the little Aunt Jemima figure in the box. It felt like a truce. But of course, it was a dream. And as dreams work, it’s a wish, a fantasy. [Laughs.]
I wrote her a cryptic letter when I was like 26 or 28 or however old I was when she was advocating against my work. I think I got to a point where she doesn’t have to answer for my work so I don’t want to keep answering for her ideas about my work.
Which gets at the expectation heaped on black female artists and what they are expected to do or not to do.
Oh, sure. Anyone who sort of came of age in the ‘70s and ‘80s has a sense of some of the battles, the civil rights battles. The black arts movement came along with all of that, [saying] art should be made for black people, about our stories, and should be represented in a positive light. I think that as a visual artist, that was always sort of a foundational issue, something to battle with. Trying not to feel trapped by that expectation from within the black community, but also from a larger mainstream art community. And a broader community that has a jaundiced view of what a black person might say, that somehow what [a black artist does] might have nothing to do with anything that is of interest to a non-black person — as if we’re not all in this together.
Philippe Vergne was recently named the director at the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Los Angeles. He curated one of your first major museum surveys at the Walker Art Center, and that survey was later shown at the Hammer Museum in L.A. Any chance you might team up again?
You’d have to ask Philippe. He’s a great curator and a great guy. I hope so. It would be exciting. I do like to come here.
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.