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Visual Artist Kara Walker Creates Unforgettable Confection at Domino Refinery in NYC

“A Subtlety” by Kara Walker (Credit: Abe Frajndlich for New York Times)

The smell hits you first: sweet but with an acrid edge, like a thousand burned marshmallows. Then you’re struck by the space, five stories high and more than a football field long. The storage shed of the Domino sugar factory, on the East River in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, was built in 1927 to hold mountains of raw sugar due for whitening. The plant was shuttered a decade ago, yet its crumbling walls still drip with molasses.

But head farther in, and that mess gives way to the pristine: Rising to the rafters and stretching 75 feet from paws to rump is a great sphinx, demure as her Egyptian cousin but glowing from a recent sugar coating. It is a sight so unlikely it seems Photoshopped.

Kara Walker, the sphinx’s creator, appears dwarfed by her almost-finished colossus, an ode to the cane fields’ black labor that she has chosen to make grotesquely white. She has titled it “A Subtlety” — after the intricate sugar sculptures that were centerpieces for medieval feasts — even though it is absurdly unsubtle. Its subtitle is “The Marvelous Sugar Baby, 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.”

The work was commissioned by Creative Time, the group known for its public art projects. “This feels like a Cecil B. DeMille set,” said Nato Thompson, Creative Time’s chief curator, gazing up at the result. From May 10 through July 6, on Fridays through Sundays, the public will get to be its cast of thousands.

Ms. Walker is a proudly tall woman — “5-10,” she tells me, correcting my guess of 5 feet 8. For protection from the room’s floating sugar, the artist wears yellow rubber overalls and a blue bandanna with shamrocks. Her face bears an uncanny likeness to her sphinx.

“I just noticed that her nose and profile are me, for sure,” Ms. Walker said. The “just” is hard to believe: In March, when I first visited studio in Manhattan’s garment district, she talked about enlarging the nostrils on an early draft of the head and, maybe unconsciously, pointed to her own nose as she did so.

Doubters — and there are more than a few — might read the sphinx as being all about inflating Ms. Walker’s ego and status. But it could as easily be a sendup of the genius-artist role foisted on Ms. Walker by others. “To joke about it isn’t necessarily to dismiss it,” she said, “but it is to acknowledge the complete folly of that whole notion.”

In the 20 years since her breakout installation at the Drawing Center in New York, when she was only 24, Ms. Walker has become a towering figure herself, an African-American visual artist who has achieved unparalleled global success. Her cut-paper silhouettes and animations, exhibited and owned by museums across the United States and abroad, harness genteel 19th-century imagery to magnify the dysfunctions bred by slavery.

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