Kara Walker “Figa” at DESTE Project Space Slaughterhouse, Hydra, Greece
by Filipa Ramos
Full disclosure: it’s impossible to expect readers of a Milan-based publication to give us credibility when reviewing an exhibition entitled Figa. In Italy the term has such a straightforward connotation (meaning a sexy woman or female genitalia) that it instantaneously locates this project somewhere between the provocative and the rude. However, Kara Walker successfully turns what could be a terribly misogynist faux pas into a potentially emancipatory gesture, concerning the legacy of female representation and its role in larger struggles to overcome gender, racial, and social inequalities.
Currently on display at the DESTE Project Space Slaughterhouse in Hydra, Figa is an exhibition of a single work, combining the tradition of monumental public sculpture with the ritualism of visiting a quasi-relic. The experience is enhanced by the foundation’s premises, an isolated old building that sits alone on a promontory facing the Aegean Sea, with its multiple historical, cultural, and touristic imaginaries.
Figa consists of a gigantic white sculpture of a fist whose thumb is between the index and middle fingers. This gesture, known across the Mediterranean as the “fig sign,” functions as a sort of amulet, bringing good luck to its bearers or protecting them from bad luck or the evil eye. The fig sign can also be made to deny a request, as a mode of saying no—it’s a silent gesture of freedom, or modest rebellion. But there is something in it that connects the Greek and the Italian versions of the object and its name, for indeed it resembles the female genitalia (make the gesture while reading these words if you want a female body to appear in your hand). The fig gesture is the feminine version of the middle finger; it protects and deceives instead of violently expressing contempt, as the raised finger does.
Kara Walker’s Figa is made of sugar. Its polystyrene skeleton is coated with a thick layer of the soft crystalline substance, and its warm, sweet smell is now impregnating the old stone walls of the small project space. Considering that this is a former slaughterhouse, its architecture still bearing the traces of its previous usage, there is an unavoidable element of tragedy in this encounter between the history of sugar production and that of cattle slaughtering. The blood, sweat, and flesh of humans and nonhumans alike are deeply intertwined here, and what could be a tongue-in-cheek, sexy parody unfolds into a narrative of abuse and slaying.
The hand originally belonged to the body of a gigantic sugar sphinx with the face of a black mama and the body of an overly sexualized African woman; the sculpture was made for A Subtlety, Walker’s installation at the Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, a Creative Time commission that took place in 2014. The plant, once the largest sugar refinery in the world, was operative between 1856 and 2004, its history following the rise and fall of Western industrialization. Not surprisingly, it is currently being redeveloped into private offices and residences—an artistic in-between moment that echoes Hito Steyerl’s remarks on the conflation of industrial and artistic operative models and spaces and supports current discourses regarding the complicity between art and gentrification.1 Thus Walker’s tribute to the history of sugar—and its reflection of the partnership between capitalist exploitation, colonialist expansion, and environmental and humanitarian devastation—has also a bittersweet aftertaste, as the grandeur of this monument becomes not only a tribute to waste and to the interrupted chain between food production and consumption, but also an indication of the postindustrial symbolism of the evolving Domino Refinery.
The displaced hand gains a new life and meaning in Hydra and in the larger Greek context. The most straightforward association would be with the migrant crisis, a connection the artist attempted to establish via a naive video projection featuring visions of the sea journeys of Syrian refugees, which served as the unhappy backdrop for the concert during the opening evening. But it also resonates with the crisis in Greek’s sugar production, once one of the country’s strongest industries and now in a moribund state, that is kept alive only thanks to fat injections of taxpayers money. Either intentionally or not, in its being transposed from post-hipster Brooklyn to present-day Greece, and by given its location in front of the Mediterranean sea, Figa becomes a sort of gigantic talisman. We can only hope that, with its powerful womanly attributes, it will bring good luck to the country and to those who currently struggle to live and to work there, or simply to reach its shores.
 Hito Steyerl, “Is a Museum a Factory?,” e-flux journal 7 (June 2009): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/07/61390/is-a-museum-a-factory/.
at DESTE Project Space Slaughterhouse
until 30 September 2017