Artist Kara Walker Pays Tribute to Dominican, Haitian Sugar Workers

Sipa via AP Images

Artist Kara Walker is known for her intricately cut paper silhouettes that illustrate scenes of the Antebellum South. Walker’s latest project is a new public artwork at the decommissioned Domino Sugar factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that explores the human price of sugar.

The exhibition which opens Friday has an elaborate 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 main piece at the show is a 75-foot long "mammy-as-sphinx" made out of carved polystyrene that is covered in 160,000 pounds of sugar, which Domino donated.

There are sculptures around the factory that depict young children working in the fields. The figures are made out of molasses, a by-product of the refining of sugarcane into sugar.


Novelist Edwidge Danticat wrote an essay to accompany the exhibition that explores the current day working conditions of Haitian and Dominican workers working on plantations in the Dominican Republic. An excerpt is below:


“Recruited under false pretenses and sometimes trafficked from Haiti, many of these men and women (and children too) work in Dominican sugarcane villages, or bateyes, in conditions that barely differ from those of their 18th-century forebears. During the zafra, or cane harvest season, they work from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. Yet they are barely able to pay for the food they eat. Some have their identity papers taken from them and fall into such bottomless debt that it becomes impossible for them to leave. Their children cannot go to school or learn a trade. Given the world’s insatiable appetite for sugar, this brutal cycle might well drag into the next century.”


The United States imports about 220,000 tons of sugar annually from the Dominican Republic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—they’re the largest sugar exporter of the countries that signed the 2004 Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement. The U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Trade and Labor Affairs "found evidence of apparent and potential violations" of labor law in a 2013 report that included reports of poor working conditions related to minimum wage; 12-hour work days; seven-day work weeks and an absence of a minimum work age.

Danticat closes her essay by saying she hopes this body of work will trigger viewers to take a “closer look at how sugar continues to be produced around the world, both in our own backyard and further out.”


The exhibition is presented by Creative Time.
Kara Walker's "A Subtlety" is open to the public on weekends from May 10 to July 6.

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