(Photo: Kirsten O'Regan)

For 22 years, Kara Walker’s work has probed the ugly issues of race, colonialism and power. But she’s never done something quite like A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: a monumental, sugar-coated sculpture of a naked African-American woman, crouching forward sphinx-like in a former Domino Sugar warehouse, her labia peeking out between her toes.
Around her, small molasses-drenched child-sculptures dot the cavernous interior. And fragrant molasses drips grimly down brick walls like slowly congealing blood, lending extra poignancy to the work’s subtitle: “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”

To Walker, the factory is a space “loaded with histories and questions”— so we asked some fellow gazers what sort of questions and answers the work provoked in them. Clicked through the slideshow for their reactions.

<b>Alexsandra Mitchell (adjunct curator, 25) of East Flatbush</b>

Alexsandra Mitchell (adjunct curator, 25) of East Flatbush

I’m a little overwhelmed. I think I’m about to cry. It makes me think about motherhood and the sacrifices motherhood entails, and the countless lives that toiled for a sweet taste. The smell is nauseating to me. I’m thinking how these children might have smelt, how she might have smelt. Oh, I didn’t think I would feel like this.

<strong>Shagun Singh (34) and Rick Lin (40), both of Bed-Stuy</strong>

Shagun Singh (34) and Rick Lin (40), both of Bed-Stuy

Shagun: It’s out of this world, and it fits so beautifully in the space. This piece is definitely talking about race and slavery and oppression and all of those issues. The fact that she decided to do the sculpture in sugar—and that the black woman as white—makes this such a layered conversation. It talks about obesity issues, processed sugar, the sweat and pain of sugar growers. And it’s related to the American Dream, which is historically very white. It’s about diversity, labour, history, food culture, producers, eaters. There’s so much going on. It’s crazy!

Lin: I’m a big fan of Kara’s work, because she does grapple with African American history and the white American empire. What I love is even though it’s satire and political commentary, it’s so beautiful, and seductive, and accessible. A lot of people deal with these issues in their art but the American public don’t respond to it in the same way as they do Kara’s. It’s beautifully seductive. And the irony of all these people taking pictures! Kara’s got a great sense of humour and she knows how people will react. I mean, the back is pornographic…

Shagun: And there’s more people at the back than at the front!

<b>XY Feng (designer, 29), Jie Jin (operations, 28) and XWJ (model, 25) all originally from China but working in NYC</b>

XY Feng (designer, 29), Jie Jin (operations, 28) and XWJ (model, 25) all originally from China but working in NYC

Feng: We’re not religious, but as we came in, the feeling is almost like going to church. The sunlight is in the middle, hitting the statue, and people are worshipping her.

Jin: A black lady in white sugar, like a sphinx—or at least a similar shape. And maybe her left hand is showing her emotions. She is holding something to herself I think. The artist is very clever: if both hands were the same no one would notice, but because they’re different we’re left wondering.

<b>Leila Walker (researcher, 34) and Renee McGarry (instructional designer, 37), both of Kensington, Brooklyn</b>

Leila Walker (researcher, 34) and Renee McGarry (instructional designer, 37), both of Kensington, Brooklyn

McGarry: Oh man, my first thought was "I feel guilty about the Italian ice I ate outside." I wish I could return all the sugar and the labor that brought it to me.

Walker: It’s really great to see this, connected to the historical legacy of Brooklyn and the U.S. in the sugar trade, and also what’s happening now—like the deadly disease hitting sugarcane workers in Nicaragua.

McGarry: We eat sugar every day, and we don’t think about where it comes from, or the historical legacy we’re part of. So this, in this space, is great.

<b>Yadira De la Riva (artist and educator) and Abdul Fattah Ismail (copywriter), both of Brooklyn</b>

Yadira De la Riva (artist and educator) and Abdul Fattah Ismail (copywriter), both of Brooklyn

De la Riva: To have a big display of a woman’s naked body—it brings up all of the violence suffered by black women, the violence of the sugar trade. And her presentation is so contradictory: she’s a goddess and yet she’s raped, or in a position where she could be raped. It’s very effective.

Ismail: She’s vulnerable and being exploited, but a part of her is accepting that exploitation. That’s the real tragedy here — humanity is being compromised.

<b>Shelley Smith (27) and Zach Blackburn (32) of Bushwick</b>

Shelley Smith (27) and Zach Blackburn (32) of Bushwick

Blackburn: When I first came in and saw it, it was like God; it was larger than life. Now, it’s a little more real. I wonder how it was made? It could just be sugar. That head could fall off and crumble at any moment. What does it mean? Is it just like about obesity? Over-consumption? Sweet tooths in general? I’m kinda trying to figure it out. I wish I’d read the artist’s statement.

Smith: We’ll read it afterwards. And be like, "Oh, there’s a spaceship underneath! It was made by aliens! Now I get it."

<b>Sue Ding (26, documentarian) and Sarice Greenstein (26, server) of Clinton Hill</b>

Sue Ding (26, documentarian) and Sarice Greenstein (26, server) of Clinton Hill

Greenstein: The sphinx is powerful but also in a prone position. She’s a motherly, middle-aged woman. So you’ve got mother versus sexualised whore figure, slave versus power figure.

Ding: [Looking around] Selfies with this image are creepy. Why would you take a picture of your child with the giant labia?

<strong>Julissa Rodriguez (artist, 23), Demi Vera (photographer, 21), and Sunny Vazquez (photographer, 22) of the Bronx</strong>

Julissa Rodriguez (artist, 23), Demi Vera (photographer, 21), and Sunny Vazquez (photographer, 22) of the Bronx

Rodriguez: The fact that the artist used sugar is phenomenal. The smell just threw me away. It makes you think about your childhood—my mom cooking flan. I felt like I was time travelling.

Vera: The space is its own show. She’s utilized it magnificently.

Vazquez: It makes you think about the whole process of making sugar. People actually die in this process. And all these pieces are really inviting. They’re so alive, just drawing you into their story. They’re as alive as me.

Rodriguez: And they’re all so innocent. And at the back…

Vazquez: It’s the embodiment of a woman! People in the U.S. are so scared of sexuality. Oh, you’re uncomfortable? Well, who gives a shit. There’s a woman standing next to you and if she bends over naked, that’s what she’s gonna look like!

<b>Sasha Zaroff (7) and Zoe Zaroff (5), there for Mother’s Day</b>

Sasha Zaroff (7) and Zoe Zaroff (5), there for Mother’s Day

Sasha: I like the conveyor belt [on the sugar-making equipment].

Zoe: All the boys are holding something in their basket with sugar in it! Oh look, I found another boy! [skips off]

"A Subtlety" by Kara Walker (All photos: Kirsten O'Regan)

(Photo: Kirsten O'Regan)