Kara Walker Knew People Would Take Dumb Selfies With ‘A Subtlety,’ and That Shouldn’t Surprise Us


The sphinx is long gone and the Domino Sugar Factory is well on its way to becoming a luxury housing complex, but the conversation surrounding Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, the art installation/social media phenomenon of the summer, isn’t quite over yet. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times’ Carolina Miranda, Walker spoke at length about A Subtlety for the first time since its July 6th close date, and especially the part of the piece many onlookers assumed Walker hadn’t planned out: the audience’s reactions.

Within weeks of the exhibit’s opening in Williamsburg, the poster-child neighborhood for gentrification and its accompanying side effects (tech bros, man buns, and the most brunch spots per capita outside Portland), a consensus quickly formed around the work. The art itself? Brilliant. The insensitive responses, collected for our nose-wrinkling pleasure on the installation’s very own Instagram hashtag? Disgusting.

Essays like Gawker’s “The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instagram Capital” and Indypendent’s “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit” were right to criticize those (predominantly white) visitors who greeted “a striking and incredibly well executed commentary on the historical relationship between race and capital,” as Colorlines’ Jamilah King described the work, with jokes about the sphinx’s vagina or gag pictures where the subject pretends to pinch her ass. Notably absent from such critiques, however, was the idea that those reactions might have been anticipated, or even counted on, by Walker herself.

Here’s Walker’s response to Miranda, who asked her to comment on some of the “vulgar” pictures crowding #karawalkerdomino:

I put a giant 10-foot vagina in the world and people respond to giant 10-foot vaginas in the way that they do. It’s not unexpected. Maybe I’m sick. Sometimes I get a sort of kick out of the hyper essay writing, that there’s gotta be this way to sort of control human behavior. [But] human behavior is so mucky and violent and messed-up and inappropriate. And I think my work draws on that. It comes from there. It comes from responding to situations like that, and it pulls it out of an audience. I’ve got a lot of video footage of that [behavior]. I was spying.

The only part of her answer that’s surprising is that Walker felt the need to collect video footage. After all, the factory space had signs actively encouraging visitors to post their pictures, crass or commemorative, to the custom hashtag. What was #karawalkerdomino for, if not to show what people often do when confronted with sensitive topics — and how shockingly willing they are to put their insensitivity on display for an entire social network to see?

It’s a shame that we’re still at the point where viewers will inevitably notice a sculpture’s “10-foot vagina,” rather than the sugar it’s made out of, a symbol with its roots in slavery, or the dissonance between its white, “refined” color and its depiction of a black woman. But part of the work’s genius is Walker’s ability to know her audience (as she acknowledges earlier in the interview, one that’s mostly white), predict its response, and incorporate that into more perceptive onlookers’ takeaway from the exhibit.

When Nicholas Powers accused some attendees of “recreating the very racism this art is supposed to critique,” he was partly right; the reactions were racist, and the impact of A Subtlety derives from its depiction of racism’s (and capitalism’s) human cost. Yet provoking a display of racism and offering a platform for that racism’s display, the social media equivalent of giving someone enough rope to hang themselves with, was a means for Walker to expand her critique.

Ignoring that possibility was a major gap in responses to A Subtlety while the installation was still up and running. Now that Walker’s acknowledged that, yes, she was well aware those responses would happen — she even tells Miranda that the footage will eventually become a piece in and of itself — it’s time to adjust our views of A Subtlety accordingly. Appalling as some reactions to the installation were, those reactions were making Walker’s point for her. The artist’s awareness of that before, during, and after the exhibit’s run only adds to the work’s strength. All those selfies didn’t detract from the impact of A Subtlety; they were playing right into Walker’s expert hands.