It’s Saturday. I’m in New York and I wake up feeling refreshed and excited about going to see some art. My boyfriend, brother, his fiancée B and I head out to get some breakfast. The weather is perfect, warm with little to no humidity. The sky is blue with pulled cotton ball clouds. We strike out for Williamsburg to go see the Kara Walker exhibit at the now defunct Domino Sugar Factory. We hop in a cab and arrive to see a long line next to plywood walls with those amusement park, 20 minutes from here, markers. My brother and my b.f. are not happy with the line and it looks like they’re regretting coming with us. Meanwhile B and I are getting pumped, enjoying the festive spirit on line: conversations about what people have heard about the exhibit, vendors hawking Italian ices and security telling us to “Form a line!” We are asked to sign a waiver, one of those ‘if a chunk of the ceiling falls and cracks your skull you can’t sue’ agreements. I can’t recall signing a waiver for art before so it better be worth it. Despite being at the end of a line down the block, we get into the exhibit in about 20 minutes and cross over a yard of pebbly rock speckled with tufts of sparse grass. As we cross the industrial courtyard we’re met with the sign: “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. “ B and I exchange glances, we know we’re in for something. My b.f. strides forward. My brother raises his camera and takes a picture.
I approach the darkness outlined by the warehouse door. What am I going to see? I cross the threshold. The ceiling above opens up; the air is cool. My nostrils flare with the scent of centuries old sugar or what I think centuries old sugar smells like. There are hints of burnt sugar without the acrid flare of a fresh sugar burn. I want to run my fingertips along the blackened walls and see if the petrified sugar granules feel like fine braille. I don’t want to cause any static with the attendants so I keep my hands to myself. Furtively I glance to my right and see the sphinx, her majestic head sunlit from above. I can’t go to her yet. Instead I focus on a caramelized figure in front of me; a decomposing little boy in a loincloth hoisting sugar cane. He’s made of entirely of sugar. His shoulders are sticky and mottled with humidity-sprung brown sugar clumps. My gut tightens. I didn’t hear about these sugar babies prior to my visit. I’d been trying to prepare for the majesty of the great sphinx so was blown when I ran into my first sugar baby. I stood with him. Tears prickled my eyes. What the fuck!?! Through a blur of tears that sit poised on my eye, the enormity of what happened here rushes in: child labor, sweat, intolerable heat, and the sickening scent of sugar permeating every pore. This figure told a story I couldn’t ignore. So I just stood there, planted. I don’t know how long I stayed with him but it was longer than the rest of the babies posted here and there throughout the warehouse.
Finally I stood in front of HER. After the unexpected emotional reaction to the little boy I was mildly surprised to not be as overwhelmed by her scale. I looked up at her, examining her scarf, eyes, lips-is she smiling, breasts, the pile of sugar under her breasts, and fists. I stand there in the same shaft of light that exposes all of her granulated sparkle.
I tentatively walk to her side to get a sense of scale. I round the back and gasp, she’s sitting on her feet and she is anatomically correct. I avert my eyes for fear of looking too interested and wonder at my reaction. I don’t take pictures out of respect, but respect for whom, the statue? I fight my instinct of discomfort and wonder at the artist’s choice to add these details. Is it a comment on the sexualization of black women? Am I putting too much on it? I don’t think so. I wish the artist were here so I could ask. I’m appalled and judgmental when a family with small children clusters together at her rear and snap a picture.
I make my way to her other side. How are people who didn’t go going to understand the scale of this thing? “Let me take a picture of you next to her,” I tell my brother. He takes a picture of me too, I’m in shadow but you can see my silhouette. I look like her! I study the picture intently.
I stare across her back imagining the actual labor of putting her together, the crystallized sugar layers. I feel a magnetic pull; I want to touch her but it’s forbidden. I want in the artist’s head. I want Kara Walker to tell me how she came up with this concept. Describe what she felt when she finally landed on an idea. Tell me if she had help with the mathematical logistics of building this magnificent installation. I want to ask if she felt overwhelmed at the beginning of the build and elated at the completion. I want to know if her heart will bruise when her sphinx is dismantled. I want her all to myself so I can interview her, one artist to another and ask about her process. But she’s not here this Saturday and even if she was I’d probably only eke out a few words of blushing praise and scuttle away.
Instead we all merge from our four corners and decide it’s time to go. I take a last glance as I walk out of the building toward the light; I look back hoping to commit that fragile last image to memory. Once outside I cop a poster and crunch across the gravel to sit along the East River and look back at the factory. I study the imposing mass of the building and know its secret SHE’s inside. Without the sun as her spotlight what does it feel like to be with her and the sugar babies under a velvety black sky studded with stars? Reluctantly we take our leave, cutting through the beginnings of a block party. We cross under the Williamsburg Bridge and head to the bus stop.
If you’re in NYC, tomorrow July 6th is your last opportunity to see this amazing exhibit before it’s dismantled. Hours are 11am-7pm.
Check out Creative Time’s video about the installation of Kara Walker’s exhibit, “A Subtlety”
Books are an invitation, reading is acceptance and if it’s good, the last page is the wistful goodbye.
Reflective Me @ work writing (or procrastinating)
I miss being up on this joint everyday. Two years ago I was blogging all the dayum time. I vented about the plethora of adults running around in jeggings, leggings, and tights (still relevant especially here in Bmore); shouted out my music muses; shared the joys (and judgments) of a chicken box (Bmore favorite, even the sparrows enjoy them) and raved about my love of the muppets- especially Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper. I gathered up a small yet loyal following, got published, was accepted into an MFA writing program and then deteriorated into blogging only twice a month. I have yet to allow an entire month to pass with no posts but the numbers don’t look too good. How did I end up joining a writing program and writing less? It reminds me of a conversation I had with a visual artist last year; she said prior to entering grad school she created relentlessly. She wondered if maybe she’d lost her instinctive mojo because of assignments. I wonder the same thing.
It’s been crickets y’all. I’ve published one piece in the past two years (my fault, not writing enough to send anything out) I need to get with my blog and jostle up some ideas or else I’ll continue to struggle. My program is both creative writing and publishing; this has been the year of publishing. Thank God I was invited to join a writing group so I can be held accountable and workshop some stuff since I’m not taking any classes this summer. I can’t even believe I just finished year two of school!!! Lemme pause for the cause and pour out some pinot grigio for the grey hairs I’ve gained since grad school started…wait wait wait, nah can’t waste the vino.
I’m tryna purge all the rules and get my voice and inspiration back. I’m not sayin my voice has been lost thanks to school; it’s been muffled by ‘requirements.’ Now I’m sitting here imagining my fantasy self: writing witty Q&A columns for Esquire, some comedy scripts, and adding my commentary to a panel of diverse women with a sense of humor. I’ll add a dash of storytelling (took a class this term; loved it!) and author some books while I’m at it. I’d love to teach part-time too. I’m serious. I needed to say this y’all I’ve been adrift for a bit, just getting it done at work-at home-at school. If I don’t stop and remind myself of my goals and accomplishments I’ll remain on autopilot, finish school and be in the same position. That can’t happen nephew (using my best Snoop Lion voice)!
Y’all know what I mean? Anybody else feel the same or have a recommendation for shaking auto-pilot?
The Windup Space stage, where all the magic happened!
So second year of grad school is all done and I’m particularly excited because I challenged myself by taking a storytelling class. Last year around this time I was taking a magazine writing elective with my teacher Marion Winik, on the last day of class she asked us if we might be interested in a storytelling class. My first instinct was ‘YES!’ and then fear immediately overcame me and I forgot all about it, until spring 2014 registration opened and there it was, storytelling. ‘YES!’ Yep, same reaction and same immediate reaction so before I could talk myself out of it I promptly signed up and I’m ecstatic I did. This past semester has been one of the best since coming to school. Not only did storytelling teach me more about being succinct when writing, it also opened up a new way for me to communicate to folks. I’m a chatty chic by nature so a venue like this should be a dream. Of course it is a bit difficult to get up in front of strangers and tell an intimate story in minutes, but that’s what I did at the end of April at The Stoop, a storytelling series in Baltimore. There is mainstage Stoop at Center Stage where guests are asked to tell a seven minute story and then The Stoop Too which is solely based off audience members throwing their hat in the ring and having their names pulled out of a bag to tell an impromptu story.
Back in January when class first started I saw that The Stoop Too for April was about hair stories…I have plenty of those so I vowed to throw my name in the bag. I was all good until the week of the show and then bubble guts set in. The day of the show I tried to convince myself of reasons NOT to go and then had to get a grip. I decided to check out artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, of Stop Telling Women to Smile fame at The Chicken Box on N. Ave and then discovered the spot for my show was directly across the street at The Windup Space! I knew it was meant to be. I disentangled my nerves by listening to Tatyana talk about her work and then crossed the street and put my name in the hat. I went solo and it turns out no bubble guts, a few nerves, but a performance I’m proud of. I’m really just glad I followed through on an idea.
Listen to the audio from my hair story: http://www.stoopstorytelling.com/storytellers/1493
What’s your hair story?
I love love love TV One because of Unsung. Yes I said it, I sweat TV One HARD because that show is introducing me to artists whose music I’ve heard as the background soundtrack to my life. Recently I can’t get enough of Nile Rodgers and Chic. Before that Unsung episode aired I couldn’t even tell you Nile Rodgers’ name but apparently I’ve loved his music all these years. Oh yeah, I had no idea that he and his Chic partner Bernard Edwards produced Diana Ross’ iconic “Upside Down” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” Thanks to Spotify I’ve been gulping down those funky baselines and disco-infused jams. I’ve been revisiting “My Forbidden Lover” and “I Want Your Love.” I need to hit up some of the B-side stuff. I was the tender age of four when “My Forbidden Lover” was released in 1979. This song makes me want to put on makeup: cat eyes and a bold lip, slide a feathered roach clip into my wavy locs, throw on some fitted jeans, and a shoulders-out flowy shirt with some tall black skates with hot pink laces and wheels. I’m definitely having a skate party for my 40th; I got two more years to plan. I want lights out with a spinning disco ball. The music will be disco, eighties pop and hip-hop. I need to start looking for a DJ now! Anyone have recommendations? I wish I was in LA, I know Frane could deliver. THIS.IS.HAPPENING.