Creative Time Presents: Kara Walker

Written by
Nato Thompson

To say there is a riddle lurking in the sugar-coated monument conceived by Kara Walker may be an understatement as big as the sculpture itself. A massive sphinx-turned-mammy, she stands mute, looking outward, acting perhaps as a guardian, perhaps a monument, perhaps, like the Greek sphinx of old, a devouring female terror. Yet unlike Oedipus in Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King, we are not asked to answer a riddle: we do not even know what the riddle is, because this sphinx refuses to speak.

Presiding over the cavernous Domino building in seeming repose, Walker’s sphinx is a hybrid of two distinct racist stereotypes of the black female: She has the head of a kerchief-wearing black female, referencing the mythic caretaker of the domestic needs of white families, especially the raising and care of their children, but her body is a veritable caricature of the overly sexualized black woman, with prominent breasts, enormous buttocks, and protruding vulva that is quite visible from the back. If this evocation of both caregiver and sex object—complicated by her coating in white sugar—feels offensive, it is meant to. It is part of what Walker has come to be known for.

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