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Art Exhibit At Abandoned Williamsburg Sugar Refinery Has New Yorkers Abuzz

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- In New York City there is no shortage of world-class museums, but some art lovers are making their way to an abandoned sugar refinery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for an exhibit that is creating a buzz among critics and viewers.

As CBS 2's Michelle Miller reported, surrounded by melting molasses figurines of child slaves is the centerpiece: a giant sphinx, 35 feet tall, 75 feet long, and coated with 40 tons of pure white sugar.

Artist Kara Walker showed Miller what inspired her biggest work to date.

"It's such a beautiful space. 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," Walker said. "(Miller: Well, we know which way you went.) Yea, we know now."

Walker explained how she went about creating the giant sculpture.

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

Trained as a painter, Walker decided on a new medium: sculpture. She called the work "a subtly," but there's nothing subtle about it, Miller reported.

So why a sugar sphinx?

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

The show 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 did on the tobacco or cotton fields of the American South, Miller reported.

The free labor and mass production paved the way for worldwide sugar consumption -- an appetite still growing today.

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.

"Kara drives some people crazy," said Professor Henry Gates.

Professor Gates is one of the foremost scholars of black history in America.

"I was at a conference and a black woman artist denounced her, I mean the whole thing --  that she was recapitulation stereotypes, but she is criticizing those stereotypes," Gate said.

Those images have drawn more than 100,000 people to see the "subtly" for themselves. The exhibit is open to the public through Sunday, July 6.

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