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Artist's giant sugar sphinx explores struggles of slavery

Tens of thousands of people have gone to see "A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby," the public art exhibit in New York City inside an abandoned sugar factory
Artist Kara Walker on her Domino Sugar Refinery installation 04:40

Art lovers are making their way to an abandoned sugar refinery in Brooklyn, New York. The exhibit is inspired by slavery.

The artist, Kara Walker, is receiving rave reviews from critics. But as CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller reports, she's also generating controversy.

Deep inside the 132-year-old factory, Walker showed us what inspired her biggest work to date.

"It's such a beautiful space," Walker said. "It's doing so much of the work already and I wasn't sure if I should do a big gesture or something very simple."

We can tell which way she went now -- surrounded by melting molasses figurines of child slaves is the centerpiece: a giant sphinx, 35 feet tall, 75 feet long, coated with 40 tons of pure white sugar.

"We had two cement mixers going. We would pour on a 50 pound bag of sugar, bring over a five pound bucket of water and try to defy gravity," Walker said. The whole building process took 8 weeks.

Trained as a painter, Walker decided on a new medium: sculpture. She calls the work "A Subtlety" -- but there's nothing subtle about it.

"The thought process had to do with molasses and the byproducts of the sugar refining process, and molasses as the byproduct of slavery," Walker said.

The exhibit is as much a lesson in history as it is about art. More slaves worked and died on sugar plantations in the new world than on the tobacco or cotton fields of the American south. The free labor and mass production paved the way for worldwide sugar consumption -- an appetite still growing today.

"In the time of slavery, sugar was considered a blood commodity," Walker said.

Walker dreamed of becoming an artist and educator like her father. She was one of the youngest recipients of the MacArthur fellowship and today sits on the faculty at Columbia university. She is best known for her cut silhouettes exploring themes of slavery and the sexualization of black women, often in graphic detail.

"I was at a conference and a black woman artist denounced her -- I mean the whole thing; that she was recapitulating stereotypes," recalled Professor Henry Louis Gates, one of the foremost scholars of black history in America. "But she is criticizing those stereotypes."

"To me, it says she has tremendous courage and knowledge," said Gates. "Many people like me think that she's a genius. She shakes us by the shoulders. How does she do that? Startling, tangible, palpable images."

Those images have drawn over 100,000 people to come see "A Subtlety" for themselves.

"Sugar, obesity, race, poverty, all of these things are still in play," said art critic Alice Twemlow. "It was incredibly powerful."

Tens of thousands of people know about the role of sugar in the slave trade because of Kara Walker.

"It's kind of a dream come true as an artist," Walker said. "It's enriching somehow."

The Domino sugar company donated 80 tons of sugar for Walker to build the piece. The exhibit will close this week and the work will be dismantled and recycled ahead of the building's demolition.

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