Sugar Baby’s Riddle: Sphinx or Sibyl?
In concept art for The Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014), Kara Walker’s monument asks, “Sphinx or Sybyl [sic]?” (Walker 2014). Constructed from sugar and polystyrene, the mammy-lion hybrid is crouched on the floor of the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn and flanked by molasses blackamoors. Inspired by her riddle, this paper argues that the Sugar Baby is both sphinx and sibyl: she muddles our response to her body, both female and animal, monster and icon, by predicting the racist and sexist behavior that accompanies the display of black female bodies, even when funneled through classical models.
Western art has long exploited black women’s bodies as sexual objects (Benard 2016), especially when employing classical tropes and themes (White 2016). Exoticized and animalized, Saartje Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa, was displayed in Europe as the Hottentot Venus in the 19th century (Gould 1985). Her large buttocks titillated audiences: cartoons showed both men and women taking a peek “up skirt” to gape at her sex (Adams 2003). Despite Baartman’s nickname, which promised that she was the epitome of beauty for the Khoikhoi people, Baartman’s relationship to Venus, the Roman goddess of love and sexuality, did not elevate, but demeaned her (Oureshi 2004). Ethnological literature from this time often used classical models to stratify different races (Gilman 1985), and even bodies identified as Venus or other goddesses were usually satirical (Chiasson 2015). Thomas Stothard’s 18th century “Sable Venus,” for example, a Botticelli-inspired engraving of a black Venus, was modelled on Isaac Teale’s ode to raping women, who were all the same color “at night” (Lewis 2015).
While reviews of the Sugar Baby focused on Walker’s commentary on the history of slavery and controversial place in the art community (Smith 2014, Als 2014), selfies with the Sugar Baby’s exposed vulva told a different story (Rooks 2014, Cooper 2014). Similar to the response to Baartman’s genitalia, the Sugar Baby’s stance, both imposing and exploitative, revealed the racist and sexist reception of her contemporary audience. Despite uproar online, however, Walker anticipated and even encouraged the low brow behavior of her exhibition’s attendees. In her video “An Audience,” filmed during Sugar Baby’s installation, Walker spies on the crowd’s reactions to the sphinx, proving her prediction (Corbett 2014). The gravitas of her classical model, juxtaposed with the racist symbols of the slave trade, comments on the continued consumption of black women’s bodies in America.
Black Classicism in the Visual Arts