Home Art Magazine Kara Walker: Fons Americanus review

American artist Kara Walker took over the vast Turbine Hall for the annual Hyundai-sponsored installation at London's Tate Modern with daring and poetic energy...

Just before Frieze London openned its doors, Walker announced the unveiling of her installation: a faux-Victorian fountain, a smaller sculpture and painted text on the walls. They are immediately impressive and grounding, yet upon careful review, they reveal a regretful story about slavery and colonialism. Get more insides from this 17th Edition of Frieze London by reading our MeetMe#18 | Frieze London 2019.

The fountain is largely based on the Victoria Memorial seen in front of Buckingham Palace. Instead of Lady Victoria, however, a woman stands atop the fountain with water cascading out of her neck and breasts down the two-story basin that is filled with other smaller sculptures with their own respective historic and art references. Public monuments like the Victoria Memorial were largely built by the victors of history celebrating their wins and anchoring their power. Walker's monument pushes back and highlights white supremacy built on black exploitation.

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Despite looking like a classic public monument upon first glance, the work carries the same graphic, evocative and unsettling power that Walker’s silhouettes and films often have. The roughly sculpted figures seen in the fountain reference other art: J. M. W. Turner’s Slave Ship painting from 1840 where slaves were being thrown off a boat to reduce weight and most prominently Winslow Homer’s Gulf Stream painting from 1899, where a Black subject is seen controlling a small fishing boat on treacherous and shark-filled seas. The sharks in Walker's fountain make reference to Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living from 1991 where he preserved sharks in formaldehyde. 

Upon a closer examination, it becomes instantly recognizable that allusions to discarded and ill-treated figures left to drown and suffer, slave-trading on merchant ships and general exploitation and fetishization of black women are central to Walker's work. While the woman figure releases water from the top of the fountain, her clothes seem to be ripped off and her throat and breasts seem to be slit, changing the narrative to a black woman spurting water like blood to fill up the fountain. 

Another sculptured figure seen around the fountain is a tree with a noose hanging from a branch. This is where Walker integrates the stories of black and women suffering with art history. This instantly evokes the horror of lynching and summons the blood-filled history of the United States. The text painted on the wall is in the typical "wild west" wanted poster style, calling attention to the her works. It says that the works presented are a "gift and talisman... an allegorical wonder".

Overall, and unsurprisingly, Walker’s work comes off as playful and inviting, yet brutal in its core. A fountain is meant to be enjoyed by the public and that is what Walker wants. This makes her sophisticated work both thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. She wants visitors to feel comfortable sitting around the fountain and as soon as they do, her stories tell themselves. The themes of denied refuge, forced movement, death at sea are just as relevant now as they were centuries before. With that considered, the monument becomes less monumentous for a specific time in history, but more of a warning for a scary world where we fail to learn lessons from the past and stop its repetition. 

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus is at the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London, until 5 April 2020.


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