“Where Is the Hidden Labor?” – On How It’s Made, Kara Walker and Infrastructure

Artist Preface A Subtlety Kara Walker

“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”

Last fall I took a class on “current controversies” in critical theory, which essentially meant we read what was “trending” in academic thought. Though we read some very disparate texts, throughout the class, under different variations, the professor repeatedly posed the same essential question: “How do things work?”

The variation of the question that stuck with me most vividly was, “Where is the hidden labor?” Much more polemic than “How do things work?” this particular variation asks what or who makes things work, and why exactly their labor is invisible. The reason this particular question resonates so much for me is that implicitly, it asserts that labor is a form of infrastructure and furthermore, that this labor should be valued. To put it bluntly, I was once an unpaid intern.

In her new installation, “A Subtlety,” Kara Walker takes this assertion seriously, taking the viewer into an old sugar refinery and magnifying the infrastructure that made – and makes – sugar possible. In the absence of machines, equipment and devices, there are instead sculptures made of brown sugar and molasses. Depicting weary and dirty little black boys at work, the sculptures have an aura of profound exhaustion, some even actually melting during the exhibit, as if even the display itself is a form of tiring labor.

Little Sugar Boy Sugar Baby

Stretching all the way down the factory’s incredibly capacious passageway, the sculptures form a meandering path to the exhibit’s prime feature: a giant sphinx made of pristine, refined sugar. The rub, however, was that this sphinx depicted a behemoth, buxom black woman, not the familiar mythical creature. Standing 50 feet tall with her genitalia exposed, her rump raised and an Aunt Jemima handkerchief tied tight, this sphinx was a grotesque and awesome sight. Her size and the sheer spectacle of the exhibit – which actually requested photography – only amplified both the grotesqueness and the awe. Even further, the fact that she was composed of white sugar, which contrasted with the brown sugar of the little boys, made her even more compelling. She was not melting or impure; she was purified, perfect, poised.A Subtlety Kara Walker Sphinx Sugar

A Subtlety Sphinx Sugar Nude Kara Walker

Yet she was also not a giant cube of sugar. This sphinx was clearly a black woman. In other words,she actually embodied the labor that made her possible: she appeared as a denuded, mammified, audacious, sugarcoated black woman. The infrastructure was the structure.

The exhibit points toward this revelation quite doggedly, asking us to confront history as it was made – through black bodies and black labor – not as it is presented in the form of tiny, delectable, processed granules. In the sense that the exhibit explicitly draws attention to infrastructure, it is strangely in the same tradition as one of my favorite tv shows, How It’s Made.

That said, what has struck me about “A Subtlety” is that Walker has actively reimagined the final product. In addition to rarely choosing products that are controversial or not mechanized, when How It’s Made shows the underbelly of familiar products, at the end of the process we see the product in its familiar form, infrastructure acknowledged, yet ultimately still not visible, as if we’ve learned a secret, but only to guard it more closely. In contrast, Walker reveals the infrastructure and forces it to the surface, like a muscle bulging through skin, becoming the skin. This is not defamiliarization or enlightenment or unveiling, all of which imply that we were looking from the incorrect angle, from an obscured perspective. No, this is metamorphosis. Through “A Subtlety,” sugar becomes a legacy of exploitation and devaluation of labor and life as well as a sweet confection. Every sugar crystal becomes a piece of the sphinx and the little children.

Of course, this becoming is never complete. Stephanye Watts at Gawker notes that unsurprisingly, the revelation I’ve outlined and experienced is one among many, namely one that manages to trivialize the entire exhibit in one phrase: “Sugar tits.” Even further, the exhibit is not permanent, so soon the labor and life embodied by the sphinx will be just as invisible as the labor that previously animated by the formerly productive factory.

That said, the value of “A Subtlety” is that it offers a glimpse of what things can look like when infrastructure, particularly labor, is made bare and made to remain that way. Seeing this exhibit gave me visions of The Great Wall of China with skeletons at its base; of Wal-Mart with its employees wearing name badges that also show their wages; of burger joints with cow heads engraved into the tables; of Qatar’s World Cup facilities littered with the corpses of dead workers; of iPhones with preloaded and undeletable photos of the people who manufactured them. These visions didn’t present a flattering portrait of the world, but the world could probably use less meticulously-orchestrated selfies and more detailed, unflattering accounts of what and who actually makes this world possible.

We have already began to view these unflattering accounts in the food and health industries. In fact, the ubiquity of nutrition facts labels shows how mundane of an idea it is for infrastructure to be apparent. There’s no reason not to branch out. After all, even though Walker herself is ironically engaged with a food item, she shows that food is always just one axis on a much more expansive grid, one that ridiculously connects us through time, space, history and memory, like a naked black sphinx in the middle of soon-to-be-redeveloped abandoned sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.


P.S. Here’s a slideshow that Walker made to highlight some of her inspirations. It is also very attentive to infrastructure.

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On You Can Touch My Hair

You Can Touch My Hair

A week ago today, I ventured down to Union Square to experience You Can Touch My Hair, an interactive art exhibit intended to address the past and present fixations with the bodies of black women, which range from benign curiosity to violative exoticism. The exhibit interested me because I liked its intent, but I was uncertain about how well it could be executed given what I perceived to be the limited knowledge of the problem. In other words, I was afraid that the exhibit would be unclear to people who didn’t know about this history of Black women being openly violated. .

After directly interacting with the exhibit and tarrying to observe others (mainly non-Black people) interacting with it, I think it was generally well-executed. The structure of the exhibit was simple: Black women held signs permitting people to touch their hair and people (of all races) approached them and engaged with these women either physically or verbally or both.

Some people likened it to a “petting zoo” or to the story of Sarah Baartman, but I think that those comparisons are lame and lazy if you consider how the exhibit actually played out. For instance, while I was speaking with one of the participants, two White teenagers literally ran up to her and curiously stroked her hair then dashed back, grinning. This is exactly the kind of interaction that many critics feared:instead of lingering  to have a discussion or have the exhibit contextualized, they saw the opportunity to touch Black hair, took it and ran off. Pure exoticism.

I think that’s a misreading of what happened. What stood out to me about these White teenagers’ interaction with the participants is that they only interacted with the participants. This is important to note because Black people, particularly Black women, were flanking the exhibit throughout my stay. In fact, there were so many Black people surrounding this exhibit that I found it  because I saw a congregation of Black women! If the exhibit had been purely exotic, I think that these women (and maybe myself, since I have an afro), would have been subject to this same exoticism. When you go to a petting zoo, you pet all the goats, not just the goats behind the fence.

To be clear, I’m not saying these teenagers’ actions were completely benign. Their curiosity and their subsequent enjoyment of having it fulfilled, were kind of unsettling and bizarre, personally. Nevertheless, as explained to me by a participant, the exhibit was not anti-curiosity; they actively wanted people to engage with the uniqueness of Black hair. What the exhibit was really critical of was how that curiosity manifests in people’s interactions with black women: the unsolicited touching, the staring, the disapproval, the disgust. Those kinds of interactions make Black women feel as if they are grotesque objects without their own agency or a sense of dignity. In other words, the crux of the exhibit was the subtext of the sign, “You can touch my hair,” which was, “You can touch my hair, because I myself told you that I’m okay with it.Even those weird White teens seemed to understand that.

Admittedly, the desire to touch Black women’s hair is a left a little untouched, pun intended, but that really didn’t really seem to be the point. The point was that Black women have the right to dictate how their hair (and implicitly their bodies) are treated and that that right should be actively acknowledged by everybody. In the end, as long as Black women feel like their bodies belong to them and not anybody else – because they do, in case you thought otherwise – I’m pretty content and I imagine that many Black women are content as well.

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I didn’t link to a lot of articles within this post, but I did read a few before I wrote this. Most of them disagreed with me, but they’re worth reading anyway.

Reni Eddo-Lodge at the Guardian

Article at Jezebel.

Interview with Antonia Opiah (creator of the exhibit)

Brokey McPoverty at Racialicious