Enter: Trojan Mammy

My father used to ask me at the dinner table when I argued for racial equality: “If they’re equal, where are their great civilization, their great philosophers, their artists? At 18, I didn’t have an answer, but now I do. For artistic genius, I give you Kara Walker.

Kara Walker-portrait

Walker, who received a Macarthur grant, is fearless in her condemnation of social and racial injustice. Her work has largely been two-dimensional, wall art, film or video—focusing on the cotton plantations of America’s romanticized antebellum south.

She addresses white fears of black potency, violence, shame, and resistance, and turns white Gone With the Wind fantasies on their heads and inside out. Her images are fierce, raunchy, defiant, grotesque, racially charged and satirical. She’s like an historian telling you a history you don’t want to hear.

Take a look.

Walker imagearar_walker_03_vWalker image2


Walker has a new piece, her largest. This time, she has gone three dimensional in a massive way, creating a Trojan Mammy for our time. “A Subtlety” is forty feet high and eighty feet long–eighty tons of white sugar.


Full title: 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 image” Walker says, “is about slavery and industry and sugar and fat…. This desire for refined sugar and what it means to turn sugar from brown to white…. She’s basically a New World sphinx. A New World thinking of the sugar plantations, the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade…. We’re literally sugarcoating history.”


“The plant is dark…decades of molasses cover the entire space… and I wanted her to be a testament and monument to the quest for whiteness…whatever that means. Authority…on its last legs—this ideal of mastery over continents, people, bodies, ecology.”

I am blown away by “A Subtlety”. Here are two interviews with Walker and a response from African American women who did not necessarily see a giant white mammy as a compliment.

9 responses »

  1. “A Subtlety” is an incredible work of true genius. Thanks for sharing. My father used exactly the same arguments at the dinner table even though he frequented, in his youth, the jazz dives of Harlem, siting in the play with some of “their” greats. Hypocrisy does such wonderfully distorted things to one’s mind…

  2. Sondra Alexander

    I have loved her work since I first saw itI a few years ago, she is a wonderful artist who truly makes us see.

  3. Yeah, I love her work, too. Interesting also how there is always that comment about there are no great artists or civilizations of people of color. Not by European standards, certainly, which in their narrow definition excludes every one else on the planet but themselves. Have you seen ceremonial masks and body adornment of African people? They are brilliant. Art and greatness are all temporary, no matter the length of time on the planet.

  4. Example – how long will that sugar momma last?

  5. I was not familiar with Kara Walker. Thank you for the sweet and biting images.

  6. Powerful work… I love it while hating what it is about. And there is a remarkable video by Walker – using her poignant work as shadow puppets – you can see it right now in the gallery at the San Francisco Art Institute, 800 Chestnut St, SF CA. Well worth a visit!

  7. Gloria Jorgensen

    This is my introduction to Kara Walker’s work. She’s destined to be a force this country needs with her visceral commentary of the hypocritical treatment of black individuals and black culture even in the name of kindness. Her ‘Subtlety’ is marvelous in it’s presentation of the lengths one must go to simply to attract the attention of oblivious white society. Such imagination, such wry humor in her all too serious subject matter are rare and brilliant qualities to possess. This is an artist to be reckoned with. I shall look forward to following her career. No doubt she has much to teach me.

  8. I did not know about this amazing artist. Thank you Norma for once again teaching me something.


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