Recent exhibitions have further demonstrated that in order to avoid the “betrayal” described by Saar, Walker’s art may be best shown in alternative venues that promote critical thinking. Audiences may be more inclined to interpret Walker’s work as literal reports on slavery in mainstream museum settings, institutions that read like placid and controlled receptacles of trustworthy culture—rather than killing fields filled with monstrous mind games that may very well hurt you. But when Walker’s art is presented in unconventional venues that turn out to possess hidden histories of racial trauma, observers may be awakened to the idea that not all is as it seems. In such surroundings, viewers stand a better (though sadly, not a rock-solid) chance of interpreting her work along its many axes of meaning.
Such was at least one of the possibilities created by Walker’s 2014 installation of 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. Occupying the former Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Walker sought to shed light on the sweet condiment’s brutal history. The artist built a 75-foot-long, 80-ton sugar sculpture of a sphinx whose lioness body ended in a plump rear end, its head sculpted in the tradition of Mammy iconography.