Reflections on Kara Walker's "A Subtlety"

According to a graphic created by the Idealist for its Facebook page, the planet—and the humans who ordained themselves its stewards—has not seen a day without war in over 5,000 years. Besides death and destruction, one of the more unsettling outgrowths of war is the peculiar institution of slavery, a blight that is whispered to have endured unto the present day. This development makes a certain amount of sense, however disagreeable. Since battles rarely end with the total annihilation of one force by another, the losers are taken captive and, thereafter conveyed to the homeland of the victors. In our modern, sophisticated minds, prisoners are held in prisons, penitentiaries, detention camps. A booming industry devoted to incarceration may outstrip manufacturing in the USA in the not too distant future. But in the old days of antiquity, classical times and all that, it made more sense to put one's captives to work without pay than it did to just lock them away. Voila! Slavery was born.
For millennia, depending on when and where a slave toiled, the unfortunate often enjoyed a chance at freedom, sometimes by purchasing freedom, perhaps by religious conversion, even by marriage to a free man or woman. On the other hand, because war is not politics by other means, but economics by seizure, the captive who did not gain liberation might be brought to his captors' bustling marketplace and traded or sold.
While anecdote has it that the Athenian democracy was built on the backs of 50,000 slaves, by the early 14th century (that's the 1300's, for those who need help with numbers), before the European colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas,
"Greek slaves were fashionable in Barcelona, being obtained from the Catalan duchy of Athens; and slaves from the Crimea were easily acquired thanks to the Genoese colony at Kaffa (the modern Feodosiya). Other important sources for slaves were Sardinia and Russia... There were Circassian, Armenian, and Turkish slaves as well as Balkans of all sorts and particularly Albanians. The ethnic diversity was remarkable." 
(The Slave Trade, by Hugh Thomas. Simon & Schuster. 1997. New York, p. 41.)
Of course, this only describes the European market. No one can overlook the Muslim contribution to this trade in human lives, a market they codified from a practice that Arabs had known long before the arrival of the Prophet. This did not mean they escaped enslavement, and the Crusades as well as the conquest and re-conquest of Iberia made the bondage of Muslims as likely as that of Christians. Ethiopians, the original European name for all black Africans, were by no means free from practicing and suffering what we now consider an inhuman trade. Aesop is said to have been a slave from Ethiopia, and "Cicero's slave Tiro was a confidential secretary and was well-educated." [p.29] There were close to two million slaves in Italy at the fall of Rome, most of them white "barbarians" from as far away as Gaul, Saxony, and the British Isles.
If any nation can be saddled with the transatlantic trade of Africans, one could do worse than blame the Portuguese. On the other hand, the initial Portuguese monopoly was the result of a papal bull that gave them exclusive dominion over all trade originating on the coast of Africa (albeit exempting the Mediterranean, which was primarily Islamic territory). The rest of Christendom largely obeyed the Vatican, and the establishment of colonies had not yet begun. This is the middle of the 15th century. Columbus and Cortes were still among the unborn. While those two "heroes" were growing up, the Portuguese—followed by the Spanish—established their first colonies on islands off the coast of Africa: Madeira (1418), the Canaries, the Azores (1427), Cape Verde and the Isles bearing its name (1444-1462), and Sao Tome (1471). In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope. We all know that all this searching for trading partners involved the expansion of markets, and the Portuguese ships were best suited for travel and trade. Exotic items from far-off lands commanded high prices across Europe, and Africa produced fine cloths, copper superior to much of what was processed in Europe, vast quantities of fine gold that the Europeans bought at great savings, and more. The Africans also traded slaves—largely from rival or distant tribes. Thousands were bought by the Portuguese in exchange for the iron-rich manilla bangles produced for pennies in northern Europe. In the pre-Columbian world, Africans were mainly sold in Europe, and many of them served in domestic capacities: stewards, footmen, musicians, cooks, gardeners. One Portuguese noble kept a black slave as his jester, a not entirely ignoble employ at the time. Laws protected slaves, and they could marry and establish workshops.
But one product contributed to the explosion in the trade of blacks more than any other: sugar. The lords of the Portuguese islands produced — with the help of their blackest slaves — tons of sugar for European consumption, particularly in Britain (where one chronicler remarked that the comely queen had black teeth, "a defect to which the English seem subject, from their far too great use of sugar." 
Amsterdam stood at the center of the sugar trade, a commodity resold throughout Europe. But the Portuguese led the way in the planting, harvesting, and milling of sugar, which they carried out on their African islands. Wait! Did I write that? Allow me to correct myself. The Portuguese led the way in engaging black slaves to plant, harvest, and mill the sugar from their island plantations. With the conquest of New Spain, the Spaniards began the Atlantic trade, having made short work of the native Carib "Indians" through overwork and the import of disease. Throughout the islands, as well as along the coast of what is now Mexico, the Spaniards set up haciendas that produced varied crops—maize, manioc, yams, tomatoes, coconuts, bananas, tobacco—as well as sugar.
By the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese set up their first colony on the African continent at the north of what is now Angola, they had managed to establish a bustling trade in black slaves with the kingdoms of Congo and the ngola nation. The trade in rival blacks was nothing new. It had gone on for millennia, just as Europeans had long enslaved each other. Indeed, it was not uncommon to find white slaves—some Christians, more Muslims—held by the black Wolof and Azanaghi to the north (modern Nigeria and Mauritania), with whom the Portuguese first traded. These northern blacks had long traded slaves with the Muslims, who had traveled west to Morocco before turning across the Sahara, establishing an empire from the Niger and Senégal rivers to the Ebro in Spain, an empire that encompassed the legendary Timbuktu.
For a century, many Africans were sent by the Portuguese to Portugal and other places in Europe, especially Spain. Mulattos abounded (as anyone who has been to Spain or Portugal can attest, despite the modern Spaniards' odd belief that they are blancos). But what really amped up the trade in blacks—mostly men—and began the exponential litany of inhumanity and abuse, was the Portuguese colony at Brazil.
"The ideal sugar plantation seemed to be about 750 acres, certainly not less than 300 acres. The enterprise was best carried out with, say, 120 slaves, 40 oxen, and a great house in the center, surrounded by the specialists' buildings and the slave quarters. On such properties, slavery, black African slavery, appeared the best kind of labor. In the late eighteenth century, a British inquiry into the sugar industry would explain that 'to cultivate annually 150 acres of cane requires 150 negroes at least in the field.'
"The region of Brazil which acted as the host for these important changes was the northeast, the two northern captaincies of Pernambuco and Bahia...
"Here began that curious society summed up in Brazil by the word bagaceira, or "a life built around cane waste," so brilliantly described in Gilberto Freyre's Great House and Slave Quarters, with "the Great House" built of mud and lime, covered by straw or tiles, with verandas on the sides, sloping roofs to give protection against tropical rains and sun, at once 'a fortress, a bank, a cemetery, a hospital, a school and a house of charity,' all protected, at least in the sixteenth century, by a palisade against savage Indians.
"The men and women who created this first sugar boom in the world lived well. Many stories are told of the opulence of the planters in old Brazil, their tables laden with silver and fine china bought by captains on their way back from the East, doors with gold locks, women wearing huge precious stones, musicians enlivening the banquets, beds covered with damask; and an army of slaves of many colors always hovering. These fortunes rested on sugar, and sugar on African slavery, but it was no less real for all that."
(Hugh Thomas, pp. 136-138.)
At this point, the end of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese royal line died out and Spain's King Philip II bought, inherited and conquered Lisbon, assuming control of the first Portuguese outpost in Africa, Arguin (never a colony like that at the mouth of the Luanda). The story of slavery in the Americas offers many more curious details, one which shifts significantly with the British defeat of the Spanish Armada and their establishment of colonies in the New World, as well as the participation of the Protestants from northern Europe. It was they who codified the black and brown peoples as inferior, a not surprising fact when one considers the long-standing barbarization of "papists," the Irish in particular—to say nothing of the twentieth century's terrible "Final Solution" in Europe, Jim Crow in the US, apartheid in South Africa, etc. Not long after those New World colonists broke away from Britain, both put an end to the slave trade in their lands (in 1807), although not to slavery. That would take a while.
A few years before the slave trade was outlawed in the new United States, in 1799, a Mr. Edmund Seaman hired a young William Havemeyer to manage the former's sugar refinery in New York City. William's brother Frederick later joined him, and on January 1, 1807, the day the British officially ended their slave trade, a new sugar plant opened as Wm. and F.C. Havemeyer on Vandam Street. Fifty years later, they started the move to the Williamsburg waterfront, and by 1864, the refinery was the most modern of its time. A fire destroyed the plant eighteen years later, and the current one was built on site, becoming Domino Sugar in 1900, the largest sugar refinery in the United States.
In a deal that closed on November 6, 2001, after several different takeovers since the early 1980's, Domino Foods, Inc. was sold by Tate & Lyle to Florida Crystals Corporation and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida for $180 million. Florida Crystals is a privately held company that is part of FLO-SUN, a sugar empire of the Fanjul Brothers whose origins trace to Spanish-Cuban sugar plantations of the early 19th century. According to a well-cited Wikipedia article, "The Fanjul brothers — Cuban born Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul, José "Pepe" Fanjul, Alexander Fanjul, and Andres Fanjul — are owners of Fanjul Corp., a vast sugar and real estate conglomerate in the United States and the Dominican Republic. It comprises the subsidiaries Domino Sugar, Florida Crystals, C&H Sugar, Redpath Sugar, Tate & Lyle European Sugar, La Romana International Airport, and resorts surrounding La Romana in the Dominican Republic." According to the US Department of Labor's "List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor," the Fanjul family's sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic are guilty of both.
The Cuban revolution of Fidel Castro came about largely through sabotage of the sugar plantations there, making life miserable for the Americans who owned the monopoly and their wealthy Cuban hosts. Rachel Kushner's book Telex From Cuba is a better than decent effort at creating an impression of the last years of foreign domination there, and the plight of the sugar plantations during the final years of El Moreno Bautista. I recommend it for those who know nothing about the former ancient colony.
Sugar cane cutters in Jamaica, 1891. Photo by Valentine and Sons.

WTF? Two thousand words and no mention of Kara Walker or "A Subtlety"! Okay, then. Before I get to the actual artwork, I feel compelled to summarize the notes that Walker herself posted at the Creative Time website on the ramifications of sugar.
Honey predated sugar as the primary sweetener in ancient Europe. The empires of Egypt, Persia, and the Hindi cultivated sugar for centuries. Once introduced to Europe through trade with the Sultanate and the spread of Islam, a kind of mania developed in many places. Sugar joined honey as a term of endearment. Initially considered medicinal by Europeans, royal chefs devised sugar sculptures known as "soltelties" or "subtleties" to decorate the banquet tables of kings and noblemen. Depicting the lords themselves, as well as animals real and imagined, scenes of conquest, glory, and mythology, they were made of sugar paste or marzipan. There can be no doubt that some of these artisans were themselves black "Ethiopians." Other highly valued commodities reaped from the sugar industry include molasses, treacle, and of course, the demon rum. After three centuries of advances in mechanical, industrial, agricultural and forced labor techniques, cheap sugar raised the caloric intake of white factory workers, enabling them to enjoy sixteen hour workdays, six days a week. "Slavery changed our diets," notes Walker. And our lives.
By 1800, as Europeans and Americans increasingly questioned the trade in slaves, there were more slaves in Africa than in the Americas. One British slaver claimed that an African nobleman had protested that if the trade were ended, the noble would have to kill all of his slaves. Notwithstanding this earnest argument, most chroniclers agree that the conditions of black slaves held by other blacks in Africa was vastly different than that of those who toiled on sugar (and cotton, and tobacco, etc.) plantations in the West. Though apparently subject to the same kind of petty ethnic rivalries that plunged Europeans into WWII and the cantonization of Yugoslavia — and Tutsi and Hutu into the bloodshed in Rwanda — etc., the attitude that their fellow blacks were subhuman was not an issue, and many slaves still found it possible to be liberated or freed by their black captors.
For a long time, the purchase of slaves was preferred to breeding. The cost of buying a slave was cheaper than losing two or three years' productivity from the mother, who would need to be fed in order to rear her child. As such, male blacks were demanded in ratios that varied between three to one and four to one compared to their female compatriots for much of the trade. Of course, as the international trade was outlawed in 1807 — going underground in the final years of its institution — breeding began in earnest. This same breeding boom followed by seventeen years Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin. This had created a whole new market for black women, whose delicate touch was deemed ideal for the harvest of King Cotton, and those final years of the international slave trade made the demand for black women equal to the demand for men. Of course, the outlawing of the international slave trade did not end it, as New England's able seamen (white and black: sailor was one of the few jobs open to free blacks, thanks to the shitty conditions enjoyed by those on the high seas, be they whalers as depicted by Melville in Moby Dick, or slavers) were hardly hampered by the fledgling Continental Navy.
As for Ms. Walker's enormous subtlety, her motives seem crystal clear, especially in light of the many works she has produced over the past twenty-five years as a media and art world darling. Which of the two specialist cabals affords her more ink is open to debate. That she is one pissed-off black woman has never been in question; that she has refined her anger into a dangerous beauty has long been evident. And why not? Her anger is an anger that persists in America despite the skin color of the nation's HNIC—I mean, POTUS—if not because of that same skin tone. The guy's not even a real, dark, get-back black, but millions of white folks have been reported to suffer imploding heads since he took office, not unlike the Dave Chapelle skit featuring the black Klansman who leaves his wife for being a nigger-lover. Over fifty, and still light-skinned, I've been asked more than once which one of my parents is white—not because of my skin color but because of my purported "intelligence." Answer: neither. Both my parents are black, and I've ridden around in the family car with them through the South, looking for a place where a "Colored" toilet was available. The stupid questions, on the other hand, occurred in New York. Everybody's mad about black people in this country, but not many people know how to say so, even all those white girls with mulatto kids.
Now, when I went to see "A Subtlety," I didn't know what a subtlety was. I knew about the marzipan sculptures and the Cuban sugar plantations, and United Fruit's banana republics. But it was pretty obvious that Walker had an inkling that the sweet qualities of whiteness are the issue (i.e., the product) of black women. In an increasingly fatherless nation, it's fitting to situate a woman at the origin of just about everything. Unfortunately, that woman's back is to the wall, her male babies scattered and hard at work. Sugar built this city, and black men built sugar, and black women built black men. That's about all there is to it, and a clear mind should see as much without all the preamble I've forced you to read through until this point.
Of course, a lot of people have described the big sugary black woman as a stereotype. Walker has been accused of engaging us to confront stereotypes before. But I wonder. Is the woman with thick lips and broad nose and protruding vulva all that offensive? She kind of looks a lot like my cousin, my father's mother, or my mother's grandmother, and I still loves me them beautiful black women's, dead or alive. My cousin and I even played doctor before reaching puberty, so I know her pussy is pretty much the same as the one sculpted by Walker (and, presumably, her paid assistants). And yet, from the curator's statement by Nato Thompson to an article by a black woman who freaked out and hollered at the crowd because real white folks were posing for pictures in front of the big sugary white black woman, I keep wondering why so many people contend that Walker sculpted a "stereotype," a "mammy." They best not be talkin' 'bout my fambly!
Art, at its base, would seem to be about beauty. The noted critic Herbert Read posits in the opening of his book, The Meaning of Art:
"Only the composer of music is perfectly free to create a work of art out of his own consciousness, and with no other aim than to please. But all artists have this same intention, the desire to please; and art is most simply and most usually defined as an attempt to create pleasing forms. Such forms satisfy our sense of beauty and the sense of beauty is satisfied when we are able to appreciate a unity or harmony of formal relations among our sense-perceptions." 
(The Meaning of Art, by Herbert Read, p. 17)

Walker knows this. Her sphinx challenges our acceptance of white beauty with a magnificent and awesome totem of black womanhood at its most terribly nurturing, serene, and fertile. You may think it's a mammy figure straight out of a 19th century factory, but it sure as hell reminds me of my great-aunt Mary (who was half black, half Chinese). And I loved her greens and chitt'lin's and fried chicken and cornbread and hugs almost as much as I loved her eight sisters' cooking (including my father's mom).
Oedipus and the Sphinx. By Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. Paris; 1806. Louvre.

In her notes, Walker depicts her mysterious sphinx daring the viewer, "GO AHEAD ASK". Dating from 9500 B.C.E., the oldest sphinx was found in Turkey. The first Egyptian sphinx is thought to have been that depicting Queen Hetepheres II (2723-2563), although the great sphinx at Giza and many others depict males. The Greeks held that the sphinx came from Egypt to guard Thebes as compelled by Hera. There, she riddled entrants to the city, devouring all comers for their incorrect answers. But when Oedipus shows up, he gives the correct answer, and the sphinx is obliged to devour herself, a metaphor for the coming of the new gods and the end of the old ones. In Sanskrit, the sphinx — or purushamriga — takes away sin and keeps evil at bay from its position at the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum. After discussing the piece with noted student of thaumaturgy, Darius James, I wonder if Walker is laying a protective spell on us? A subtlety harkens back to the ancients' development of the arts for specific purposes, especially transformation. Like the art of the primitives, Walker's sphinx and its sugar baby offspring deliver the "unity or harmony of formal relations among our sense-perceptions" embodied in ritual — and ritual lies at the foundation of art. The ritual begins with music, and the freedom delivered by the players of music enables the rest of us to express ourselves with similar freedom in the abandon of the dance. The altar is the trace of ritual, the grass made greener by the dance of the fey folk, and Walker has presented us with an altar for the immediate epoch. She knows a change must be made, but she's not dictating what changes to make. She's setting up the conditions for the foundation of real and conscious transformation; the rest is our business. Together.
Purushamriga guarding the entrance of the Shri Shiva Nataraja temple in Chidambaram.
Photo by Raja Deekshitar.

I've often thought it would prove tougher to be a white woman in America than a non-white woman. I mean, white women have a bona fide ideal to compare themselves with, and failing to live up to that standard, they're fucked. Colored women—mulatto, octoroon, Latina, Arabic, South and East Asian, native American, etc.—on the other hand, needn't concern themselves with that American standard (not to be confused with the makers of toilets and other bathroom luxuries), since it obviously doesn't address them. In the same way, it must be tough to be a white guy who's unable to save the world against all odds and get the girl. Me, I only need to help the white guy out—save him so that he can go on to save the world and get the girl—and die a martyr's death.
We may never stop being mad about black people. The way they wanted help after Katrina swamped New Orleans annoyed us, even though Halliburton made money on the debacle even while stoking the war effort in Iraq. Now I hear they want free water in Detroit, all summer long, and the commies in the U.N. support that crazy idea! And all those brown people slipping across the border and making babies to do the work we don't like are undoubtedly making fun of us in Spanish, a language we are too pissed off to learn. Maybe Kara Walker has the right idea and we should all turn white. Of course David Hammons upset some black men years ago when he painted a blond, blue-eyed portrait of Jesse Jackson with the words "HOW YA LIKE ME NOW?" (a la Kool-Moe-Dee's rap bullet); they attacked the painting on sheet metal with sledgehammers, raising its value instantly. Hammons went out and bought a dozen sledgehammers, placed them in a line before the artwork, then ran a red velvet rope from the first to the last. 

We're all mad — white, black, other — and most of us are maddest at each other, viz., ourselves. If I could go ahead and ask Walker's totem a riddle for the ages, it would be, "How long?" Or as Richard Pryor quipped, "How long will this bullshit go on?" On the other hand, that pretty much sums up the riddle Walker's sphinx asked us. "How long?"
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
New Haven

Sensuality plunging barefoot into thorns.
From an illuminated MS. of the Psychomachia of Prudentius. English; 11th century. British Museum.


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