Hyndai Commission at the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, Kara Walker: Fons Americanus
Originally published 29.09.19.
Taking in the transatlantic slave trade, the politics of public monuments, lynching, Queen Victoria and Britain’s Imperial legacy, by way of Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, JMW Turner’s Slave Ship, Thomas Stothard’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, Bottichelli, Damien Hirst and William Blake, not forgetting a reference to Kanye West, this monumental 13 metre high fountain is an ambitious, passionate, provocative allegory of how fundamentally colonial expansion and the suffering that engendered, underpins every aspect of our current society. Walker points out how, as we sleepwalk past monuments celebrating our colonial past, we continue to overlook the suffering our Imperial past perpetuates today.
Fons Americanus questions what is celebrated in public monuments, and what is not, questioning the victor’s version of history with an alternative narrative.
Where her works are sited is all important to Walker, whose installations have been placed on places of significance to the slave trade. Katastwóf Karavan, at New Orleans trianniel, was positioned on the holding ground where slaves were kept before being shipped across the ocean, and Fons Americanus is no different – placed in the gigantic Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, Walker alludes to Tate’s own ties to money made through plantations and slavery through it’s founder, Sir Henry Tate, of the sugar company, Tate and Lyle.
Taking the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace (the monument to Victoria’s rule, built by funds raised from the colonies) as a starting point, Walker’s fountain usurps the central figures and meaning usually celebrated in these civic monuments, and brings to view the underlying exploitation the British Empire is built upon.
In Walker’s memorial, the figure of Venus, has been transfigured. Her scalloped shell becomes a smaller second sculpture located in front of the Turbine Hall bridge, in which the face of a crying boy emerges from a pool of water, filling the shell with his tears. Water spurts from the figure at the top of the fountain, watering the rest of the sculpture. Shark infested waters populate the fountain, replacing the mermaids and dolphins in Victoria’s memorial. They speak of the Maritime disaster scenes in art, and the dangerous journey of the slave ships crossing the Atlantic – while the noose placed near a figure, The Captain, hangs ominously.
Fons Americanus, Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London to April 2020.