During the current protests over the death of George Floyd and other Black people under the hand of the police, various monuments were overthrown from their centuries-old pedestals in central arrears or cities across America and the UK. The reason for that is very simple - the controversial artifacts honored the white males involved in different forms of slavery, whether they acted as decision-makers or wealthy landowners.
Although it may seem ruthless to some, for a Black community as well as other people of color these monuments are a reminder of racism and segregation still deeply inscribed in the system, especially in the UK. To overthrow them means changing the narrative that has been unjust for such a long time.
For the mentioned reasons, the spectacular yet chilling fountain called Fons Americanus erected at Tate Modern by the American multidisciplinary artist Kara Walker epitomizes the inevitable arrival of the change in the way we speak, debate, and approach the horrific legacy of colonialism and the burden of contemporary racism.
The monumental 13-meter-high fountain located in Tate’s Turbine Hall is the fifth annual Hyundai Commission (part of a unique long-term partnership between Tate and Hyundai Motor) and certainly one of the most ambitious ones to date. The work is centered on the narrative that commemorates the African diaspora and questions the remembered and the forgotten in the public sphere.
A prolific visual artist, member of the American Philosophical Society and Tepper Chair in Visual Arts at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Kara Walker came to prominence during the 1990s for her simplistic, yet profoundly indicative black and white cut-paper tableaux vivant installations that stand as metaphors of historically framed stereotypes inherited from the era of slavery. By diving into the past, Walker tends to expose the suffocating reality of the plantation slaves as the viewer becomes mesmerized by a circular, claustrophobic space reminiscent of the 360-degree historical painting known as the cyclorama.
Throughout time, Walker experimented with other media such as watercolor, video animation, and shadow puppets while focusing on the matters of race, gender, and violence. The artist is largely inspired by the political self-portraits of Adrian Piper, as well as the works by Andy Warhol, and Robert Colescott.
Fons Americanus is a grandiose white fountain that erects from two oval basins filled with water. It is surrounded by the sculptural group at all four sides of the pedestal, with water coming out of the top figure. The very form of the same is inspired by the Victoria Memorial that stands in front of Buckingham Palace (designed in 1901 and unveiled in 1911 in honor of Queen Victoria). Walker’s fountain stands as an homage to all the suffering of the slaves who were massively exploited for the sake of the British Empire.
Fons Americanus is an allegory of the Black Atlantic, that honors the interconnected histories of Africa, America, and Europe through a flux of historical facts and fiction. The water underlines the transatlantic slave trade and the most often the tragic experiences of people from these three continents.
The figures covering the monument refer to different literary, art historical, and cultural sources spanning from J.M.W. Turner’s iconic painting Slave Ship from 1840, then Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream from 1899, but also Damien Hirst’s 1991 formaldehyde shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.
The significant visual reference is the 19th-century slave propaganda image known as The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, alongside other images of the Roman goddess Venus standing on a seashell. This divinity stands at the top of the fountain but translated as a priestess from Afro-Brazilian and Caribbean religions. Her shell is a smaller second sculpture located in front of the Turbine Hall bridge, which features the face of a crying boy emerging from a pool of water, filling the shell with his tears.
The full title written in Kara Walker’s own words is found on the Turbine Hall wall; the artist signed the work ‘Kara Walker, NTY’, or ‘Not Titled Yet’, to refer to the British honors awards such as ‘OBE’ (Order of the British Empire).
This commission curated by Clara Kim (The Daskalopoulos Senior Curator, International Art (Africa, Asia & Middle East)) with Priyesh Mistry (Assistant Curator, International Art, and Petra Schmidt, Production Manager), was produced using environmentally-conscious materials such as reusable cork, wood, and metal, and the fountain is coated with non-toxic acrylic and cement composite. The overall process was based on avoiding large quantities of non-recyclable materials and harmful substances that are often used for the production of exhibitions and large scale installations.
It seems that this astounding intervention goes beyond the category of artwork since it radically subverts the public space in a twofold manner - by using the visual vocabulary associated with the colonial aesthetic and white supremacy and translating it to a fully engaged and rather universal agenda.
Fons Americanus undoubtedly encourages the visitors to confront present-day preconceptions and alter the way they perceive history in a former Empire that redirected the fates of many.
Hyundai Commission: Kara Walker: Fons Americanus will be on display at Tate Modern in London until 8 November 2020.
Editors’ Tip: Kara Walker: Hyundai Commission
The works of New York–based artist Kara Walker (b. 1969) have been featured prominently in exhibitions around the world since the mid-1990s. Walker is renowned for her candid explorations of race, gender, sexuality and violence, from drawings, prints, murals, shadow puppets, cut-paper silhouettes, and projections to large-scale sculptural installations, often referencing the history of slavery and the antebellum American South. Now, Walker is creating the latest Hyundai Commission in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Documenting the work’s creation, this book includes images of the work in process as well as the final installation. Essays by curator Clara Kim and a specially commissioned piece by the celebrated writer Zadie Smith offer fresh and intriguing insights into Walker’s life and career.
Featured image: Hyundai Commission: Kara Walker - Fons Americanus © Ben Fisher © Tate photography (Matt Greenwood). All images courtesy Tate Britain.