Race, Power and Public Art at the Domino Sugar Factory

June 18, 2014 11:49 AM

Artist Kara Walker’s 75-foot long sugar sculpture is drawing crowds to the former Domino Sugar Factory on Brooklyn’s Williamsburg waterfront. Commissioned by the public art nonprofit Creative Time, the installation evokes questions about race, power and the history of our dependence on sugar.

Watch the video to see the sculpture, followed by a conversation with the artist herself from the New York Public Library‘s LIVE from the NYPL series. 

Is public art a good way to tackle controversial social issues?  Share your thoughts below and we may share them on the air.

We encourage spirited discussion, but reserve the right to remove comments our staff feels are inappropriate, hateful or unproductive.


  • Whitney

    Of course, so often only certain people are a part of conversations, with public art it allows all people from all different walks of life to take part in an important discussion.

  • wondering

    Genuinely curious – how is this installation not attracting rats, flies, ants, mice. etc?

  • kansalainen

    Public art can be a great way to tackle social issues if the the art poses solutions or counteracts the social issues it means to tackle and/or comes from a place of political awareness based in activism. I think it is unfair that Walkers art is put into the context of social commentary because as far as I know she is not an activist, but rather an investigator: A person developing ideas, new ways of seeing, new ways of expressing, just like any other artist. There are no answers in her work, only questions. When a White artist makes work about their experience, we allow it to exist as a probing, without expecting them to be activists. When was the last time we’ve read about a White artist work in the context of what it means for Whiteness? A lot of people expect activism from Walker’s show, I did, and considering this expectation while also considering the question sheds light on how ridiculous that expectation was and is.

    Kara Walker is an individual, stating her ideas and sharing her vision for a space she was invited to create in. It is one vision, of one person, who is a Black woman and recognized artist. Of course there are layers of meaning, but the value of this work in relation to tackling issues of race and gender comes off to me as inflated, and unfair. The assumption that Walkers work can be seen as a form of activism marginalizes the feminist and antiracist theorists and activists who aren’t represented, aren’t referred to, and I can assume weren’t consulted in the production of this work. If we look at the work of White artists we will find that they engage with issues around race just as much as Walker does, but their approach is taken for granted because of White privilege.

    The question to me is whether or not looking at Kara Walker’s work as tackling social issues is constructive, and if it is, why?

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