Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

Delve deeper into 2019’s Hyundai Commission by Kara Walker

INTRODUCTION

‘My work has always been a time machine looking backwards across decades and centuries to arrive at some understanding of my “place” in the contemporary moment.’ – Kara Walker

Kara Walker is an artist whose work explores ideas around identity, race, sexuality and violence. She works in a variety of mediums, including painting, print-making and installation. For Tate Modern’s 2019 Hyundai commission, Walker has created a large-scale public sculpture in the form of a four-tiered fountain. Fons Americanus questions how we remember history in our public monuments. At the same time, the work presents a narrative on the origins of the African diaspora.

Fons Americanus is inspired by the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, London. The memorial was designed in 1901 and unveiled in 1911 to honour the achievements of Queen Victoria who was the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1837–1901), as well as the Empress of India. Rather than a celebration of the British Empire, Walker’s fountain inverts the usual function of a memorial and questions narratives of power. Walker explores the interconnected histories of Africa, America and Europe. She uses water as a key theme, referring to the transatlantic slave trade and the ambitions, fates and tragedies of people from these three continents. Bringing together fact, fantasy and fiction, Fons Americanus stands as a representation of this narrative in the form of an allegory or fable.

The full title of the work is painted on the wall of the Turbine Hall. Written in Walker’s own words, the text encourages us to confront a history often misremembered in the UK. She presents the artwork as a ‘gift … to the heart of an Empire that redirected the fates of the world’. Walker has signed the work ‘Kara Walker, NTY’, or ‘Not Titled Yet’, in a play on British honours awards such as ‘OBE’ (Order of the British Empire).

WHY A MONUMENT?

Walker’s choice to create Fons Americanus in the form of a public fountain is significant in the wake of recent student demonstrations to take down monuments that celebrate colonial histories in both the US and UK. Fons Americanus turns the celebration and honouring of monuments inside out. The monument asks uncomfortable questions by exploring a history of violence against Black people of Africa and its diaspora that is often unacknowledged.

As you enter the Turbine Hall, you first encounter a smaller monument of Shell Grotto . Taking the form of scalloped shells from art historical depictions of the Roman goddess Venus, Walker’s shell encases a weeping boy inside a well, almost completely submerged in water. His head floats just above the surface as if drowning or emerging from the depths, with pools of water running from his eyes.

Walker’s Shell Grotto connects to the ruins of a colonial fortress on Bunce Island in Sierra Leone. Bunce Island was one of many commercial forts where European slave traders and African merchants traded and captured men, women and children ready for them to be sold on the plantations of the New World or America.

Walker’s weeping boy and well question how these traumatic histories are now celebrated. The weeping boy bounces back from the depths of waters to interrogate what we choose to remember and what we forget. How can we see the monuments in our public spaces in a new light?=

THE FIGURES OF THE BLACK ATLANTIC

The larger fountain of Fons Americanus presents an allegory or extended metaphor of the Black Atlantic. The Black Atlantic is a term first used by the historian Paul Gilroy to acknowledge how the legacy of transatlantic slave trade has shaped the development of Black identity and culture in America and Europe.

Allegories often use caricatures or stereotypes to explore ideas and themes. Each figure is symbolic of an abstract concept, which in Walker’s case relates to the themes of her work. Walking around the fountain, you can see figures such as Venus , The Captain and Queen Vicky . These figures all symbolise different ideas around the transatalantic slave trade. They also reference an array of art historical, literary and cultural sources. Each element references imagery around the themes of violence and identity that Walker wishes to evoke or challenge. What do they remind you of?

On the second tier of her sculpture stands Queen Vicky . At the front of the memorial situated outside the gates of Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria is sat regally on her throne looking out over the Mall. Walker plays with this image. Positioned at the back of the fountain, her queen is alive, joyful and caught mid-laughter. At her feet is a crouching personification of Melancholy , a human representation of deep sadness. His bowed head and crouched demeanour contrasts with the lively Queen Vicky who also holds a coconut at her breast, a symbol of life and sustenance.

On the same tier is a figure of a Kneeling Man . Walker suggests this may be a caricature of West Indies Governor Sir William Young. Young was an owner of sugar plantations and enslaved labourers in the Carribean. Here the Kneeling Man is begging and is presented in a posture of remorse. A symbol of European colonialism, Walker has sculpted this man who once held so much power, in a vulnerable pose. Rebellions led by the enslaved threatened the economic strength of men like Young. Could he be kneeling in order to seek the mercy of the enslaved labourers? What else does his position suggest about the story Walker is telling?

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WATER

We cross the Atlantic in many ways. We Swim or we Sink. The Voyage of the Sable Venus , submerged within her misshapen shell.’ – Kara Walker

The Atlantic Ocean connects Europe and America with Africa. It is on water that enslaved people were transported during the transatlantic slave trade without their consent to work for European and American plantation owners, a dangerous journey known as the Middle Passage.

;In Walker’s sculpture, water is the source of power. On the lower basin of the fountain is the model of a fishing boat which has sprung a leak. As the water threatens to sink the boat, the seafarer inside becomes at risk. The scene references Winslow Homer’s painting The Gulf Stream (1899) which depicts a Black sailor in a small rudderless boat with no sail. Sharks surround the boat symbolising the threat of imminent violence and danger.

J. M. W. Turner’s painting Slave Ship (1840) and John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778) showing voyages around dangerous seas are also reference points here for Walker. Walker writes:

‘I looked at a grand panorama of a whaling voyage and considered the Black Atlantic as its been represented in art by Turner, Homer, Copley and sailors themselves … Drawing from and inverting the meanings and titles of famous (and not so famous) artworks and poetry from the colonial era to the present, my fountain yokes together racist representation and violent expression of power, issues which tend to become romanticized and often depicted in pastoral settings.’ – Kara Walker

Sharks circle the boats and ships in Walker’s fountain too. She references Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), as well as her own work in Tate’s collection Grub for Sharks: A Concession to the Negro Populace (2004). Hirst’s artwork consists of a preserved tiger shark encased in a clear box of formaldehyde. Playing with the title, Walker has named this section of her fountain The Physical Impossibility of Blackness in the Mind of Someone White . She alludes to the catastrophe of the lives that were lost on the dangerous journeys made by the enslaved on the Middle Passage and the absence of their tragic stories from accounts and depictions of this history.

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