Last week, I went with a friend to see 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, the installation by Kara Walker that will close after this weekend, following an eight-week run. When we left, I asked my friend what he thought. “Well, it’s all over Instagram,” he said. “So it’s pretty much what I expected.”
Reviews of Walker’s installation have tended to focus on a few themes: Gender and sexuality is a big one, as the work is a giant sculpture of a naked woman; many have noted the fig sign the statue makes with a thumb through its fore- and middle fingers. Others have reveled in its open-endedness: Jerry Saltz spoke to its “ambiguous anarchic meaning” while at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Francey Russell asked, “Is there a right way to view it? and concluded that, “A Subtlety can occasion moments of self-recognition and also refusals of such recognition.” So basically, A Subtlety is whatever you think it is, person viewing A Subtlety. Mostly, though, it’s a work about race—the slavery-supported sugar industry is the primary topic of critique. Given Walker’s previous work on this theme, that is hard to miss.
What’s surprising, amid all the attention, is that A Subtlety hasn’t really been discussed as an example of Egyptianizing art; Walker is borrowing the visual language of ancient Egypt and using it in a decidedly non-Egyptian context. When employed by modern people, Egyptian aesthetics usually signify, at least subtextually, one of a handful of things we associate with Egypt: pyramids, sphinxes, and slavery. Because the Old Testament dwells upon the experience of Israelite slavery in Egypt, post-antique Westerners have long associated Egypt with despotic, autocratic, authoritarian rule, even though Egyptian slavery as depicted in Exodus is a myth. But there was a rigid social hierarchy in place, and reflected in what we call ancient Egyptian “art” is a worldview whose primary purpose was to maintain the status quo. The status quo of ancient Egypt as we understand it is a bureaucracy, at the top of which sits the king. Below him—or her, but nearly always him—is a stratified elite class. Underneath these elite people on the social hierarchy was almost every ancient Egyptian person. They weren’t slaves, but they were nearly all agrarian peasants and menial laborers.
The sorts of jobs these people did were of great fascination to the Egyptian elite, because the labor of the peasant-workers kept privileged Egyptians at the top of the social pyramid, pun intended. Egyptian literature, which was entirely composed by and for the literate elite class, often concerns entreaties to become a scribe in order to avoid potentially dangerous and body-destroying labor. Yet these activities were so essential to the foundations of Egyptian society that they were commemorated repeatedly in painted and relief wall art in tombs. From as early as the third millennium BCE, Old Kingdom-period Egyptians put small, limestone serving statues in their tombs which depicted workers doing menial yet essential labor. The idea was that the statues were magically activated and would work to produce sustenance for the deceased for eternity.
Walker has fashioned her installation in the form of a sphinx—a familiar Egyptian statue type with the head of a person and the body of a lion. In nearly every instance, a sphinx is male and royal—most often a king. And it’s true that, hunched forward, tits out, and arms in front of it, A Subtlety echoes the posture of a sphinx. But circumnavigate the thing and you’ll see that the form also, in fact, echoes a type of Old Kingdom servant statuette, a woman grinding grain. (There’s an example of this statue type in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.) Check out the way her body is positioned, particularly the ass and labia thrusting back, the bare chest, and the breasts presented toward the viewer. What Walker has made is something explicitly female-bodied, human, and decidedly common—a laborer. Maybe it’s accurate to say that the sugar statue has a queenly air about it, but I wonder whether that’s because the statue is meant to be regal, or whether we read monumental installations as evidence of power regardless.
I can’t say my friend was wrong though; actualizing this work, standing among the Instagrammers, didn’t add much for me. But the statue’s less immediate physical context is crucial. This factory, which is slated for demolition, is located in a post-industrial neighborhood that, since the factory’s construction, has seen all sorts of gentrification. Egyptian sphinxes were usually found in royal or otherwise high-status contexts; the Giza sphinx was built in a royal necropolis, and other sphinxes, like those of Hatshepsut, were intended for temples. Serving statues came out of private tombs, and often serdabs, constructed spaces in which images of the elite deceased were concealed for the purpose of making offerings. In that sense, the serving statues are automatically in conversation with the persons whom they’re ostensibly serving. You could say, then, that the context of Walker’s installation specifically invites a comment about the tension between the marginalizing of the working-class and those who stand to benefit from their labor. The placement of smaller molasses statues depicting children carrying baskets around the monument mirrors, in a way, the Middle Kingdom wooden serving statue type that replaced the limestone Old Kingdom example. Check out the Statue of an Offering Bearer from the tomb of Meketre, in the Metropolitan Museum; Walker’s little molasses boys are not Egyptian in the least given their naturalism, but their posture and demeanor can be found in Meketre’s serving girl. The other models and statues in the Meketre cache all concern labor, too.
Discussing A Subtlety in New York Magazine, Saltz called it “part Cecil B. DeMille parade float”—a reference to 1956’s The Ten Commandments, in which the Egyptians impose biblically framed hard labor on their Hebrew slaves, who then end up liberated from a Soviet-like, despotic Ramses the Great as portrayed by Yul Brynner, who had something of a gift for bringing totalitarian asshole kings to life. The Western view of Egypt has always tangled labor up with power, flattening the actual Egyptian social hierarchy. There’s no need to flatten Walker’s work, too; the city will take care of that soon enough.
Rachel P. Kreiter is a doctoral candidate in art history at Emory University.