Fons Americanus: Kara Walker at the Tate
Kara Walker at Tate Modern Turbine Hall
October 2, 2019 – April 5, 2020
Bankside, London SE1 9TG
American exceptionalism is a very real phenomenon, but it far too often obscures a British exceptionalism and a very British obliviousness to history. Whereas America is notorious around the world for its geography skills, that antagonism of history – crystallised through the struggles for civil rights – has long been in the public consciousness, however unwelcome it might be. Few people in Britain are so keenly aware of their own country’s actions, of Oliver Cromwell’s massacres in Ireland (in Britain he’s instead remembered for banning mince pies), of the East India Company, of the Opium Wars, of dividing and redividing the world according to its designs.
Entering Tate Modern and being greeted, in the distance, by Walker’s Fons Americanus (2019) – the 2019 Hyundai Commission for the Hall – is almost overwhelming. In the Turbine Hall you’re first met with Shell Grotto (2019), a large, water-borne shell, reminiscent of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1486), standing at the front of the Hall. But the goddess herself is absent, and instead a young boy’s head is overcome by waves at the shell’s bottom as he gazes into the sky; instead of the contained swirl of water that circles the shell and the feet of Venus in Botticelli’s painting, there is a boy drowning with tears running down his face.
Venus, absent from her stage, is at the head of Fons Americanus itself, at the back of the Turbine Hall. Whereas on top of the Victoria Memorial, which informed Walker’s piece, is a gilded personification of victory, wings and all, above a seated statue of Victoria herself flanked by truth and justice, here Venus is throwing back her arms and baring her breasts as water flows from them as easily as from her neck – downward past a caricature of Victoria flanked by a hanging tree, a ship’s captain, and a slaver. As a gift “to the heart of an Empire that redirected the fates of the world,” the didactic accompanying the 42-foot-tall statue reads, it not only “redirected the fates of the world” but also sharks’ migratory patterns to follow the British slave ships of the Middle Passage.
“This is a piece about the oceans and seas, traversed fatally,” says Walker in her profile for the Tate, as an allegory of the Black Atlantic. And so, in the first of the two pools at the bottom of the fountain beneath Victoria and the slavers, instead of the proud bows of ships at the base of the Victoria Memorial we see sharks encircling slaves as they struggle to stay afloat.
The lowest level of the fountain is sparser, with fewer figures. Here the sculptures are more expressionistic, with one figure resembling a Kathe Kollwitz woodcutting through its distress and mournfulness; another has a face that mirrors the anguish of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893), as it’s hounded and harassed by a figure with a haircut suspiciously similar to Donald Trump’s. But Trump is only a small part of the fountain, as much as he is a small part of US and British imperialism.
Rianna Jade Parker, writing in ARTnews, is right in asking whether British artists would be commissioned on such a project, and be given the same resources and international stage that is granted to an American artist here – recalling that Boris Johnson’s promise in 2008 for a bronze statue memorializing the victims of British slavery went unfulfilled. Would another work by a British artist be more nuanced than Walker’s Fons Americanus, she asks, highlighting Walker’s misunderstanding of British history when Walker says slavery never happened on British soil – even failing to recognize the Tate’s own foundations that were built on slavery, and so failing to meet the criteria of the Hyundai commission that is to create a site-specific work for the Tate’s Turbine Hall. Had a British artist been commissioned to undertake this project, Parker writes, it would have been an opportunity to build and publicize a British discourse around race and slavery that is distinct from the American experience. But Walker herself deserves more credit.
Rather than an “an unnuanced portrayal of a subject Walker doesn’t know enough about,” as Parker claims, Walker recognizes the function of monuments and memorials beyond their official purpose. In discussing the forgettability of monuments, Walker describes first seeing the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace on her way to the airport, taking photographs in passing, and then promptly forgetting about it. “There’s this very peculiar quality that they have of being completely invisible,” she tells the Tate in a promotional video. “The larger they are, in fact, the more they sink into the background.”
And so Walker’s monument, contrary to Parker’s claim, does “what any good statue should – deal with its site and the context surrounding it.” Rather than adding another monument into the public that sits beside those like the Victoria Memorial, Nelson’s Column, or the Diana Memorial Fountain, any monument sanctioned by a British government that is headed by a notorious racist and which still fails to address basic inequality would have rung hollow. And so this is not a “counter” memorial but a negative memorial, a memorial to that failure and unfulfilled promise. When Parker “wonders whether a more introspective version of the monument was possible – and whether Walker was the right person for the job at all,” this refusal to have another memorial sit alongside them is this introspection.
Walker’s monument then isn’t one that demands that it’s understood, but recognizes – however unjustly – its place in the British psyche. Slavery is thought as a purely American phenomenon that sullies that nation’s history, and which the US must still contend with. Britain instead celebrates its having ended slavery sooner than the US, without, of course, acknowledging its pivotal role in the American slave trade in the first place – and not to mention that its ships were still transporting slaves even after slavery itself was made illegal. It’s seen as an exclusively American problem; a novelty import from America that sits beside all its other cultural artefacts that gives us films about slavery as readily as Mad Men (2007–2015).
Fons Americanus is a monument against this novelty of the British attitude towards slavery, that recognizes the intransigence of many of its viewers and the history of the country it exists in, presenting, as the didactic reads, “the Citizens of the Old World” and “The Monumental Misrememberings Of Colonial Exploits” in a way that putting a traditional monument a mile down the road from the Victoria Memorial could never achieve.