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Black Art, White Patrons

The Overwhelming Whiteness of Black Art

Jamilah King writes on the “unsettling” experience of consuming racially charged Black art while surrounded by a predominately White audience. 

If you go to Kara Walker’s new exhibit, “A Subtlety,” at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, a lot will overwhelm you. You’ll likely wait outside in a line that snakes down Kent Street, across from rowhouses that were once owned by Puerto Rican families and now fetch millions. You’ll sign a waiver absolving the show’s curators of legal responsibility for the asbestos and lead that you’ll inhale while you’re in the dilapidated 158-year old factory. And, once inside, you’ll see at least a dozen “sugar babies” made of molasses and resin—molds of Black children literally melting before your eyes. You’ll smell the molasses as you walk through the exhibit anchored by a 35-foot tall sphinx made of what the artist has called “blood sugar” and sculpted into the shape of a naked mammy. You’ll also see White people. Lots of White people.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s reassuring that so many White people have a vested — or at least passing — interest in consuming art that deals with race. At the same time I found it unsettling to view art by a Black artist about racism in an audience that’s mostly White. It reinforced the idea that Black people’s histories are best viewed but not physically experienced.

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