“Fons Americanus” (2019) by Kara Walker at Tate Modern, London

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

During Tate Modern’s temporary closure, Kara Walker’s “Fons Americanus” (2019) has remained inside the museum’s Turbine Hall as nationwide discourse about historical statues in the US and UK have reemerged. Walker’s anti-monument offers a reevaluation of some of the most prominent British statues that glorify the country’s colonial past and questions our collective memory of history.

When Walker’s large scale fountain sculpture “Fons Americanus” (2019) was first unveiled in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall as the museum’s annual Hyundai commission, the work quickly became critically acclaimed and attracted high visitor numbers. Scenes at the Turbine Hall of people gathering in front of the fountain and sitting on its rim while the sound of the rushing water echoed through the hall, evoked a similar impression to scenes around the city at its touristic attractions.

In an interview with Tate Modern, the artist recalls briefly seeing the Victoria Memorial while driving past Buckingham Palace in London on her way to the airport.
She further noted how she had been “perversely moved” by the misinterpretations of history that these monuments symbolise. Walker explained: “I think as an American girl coming to Europe for the first time as an art student, I was perversely moved by the grandeur of the palaces,” she said. “Because it really is very jarring when you think about what that’s built on the backs of.”

“Fons Americanus” is a direct counterpart to the Victoria Memorial, which was unveiled to the British public in 1911 as a commemoration to the reign of Queen Victoria. To this day it remains the tallest monument built in celebration of a monarch. The immortalisation of some of history’s key oppressors, represented in monuments or statues around the country, reveals the uncomfortable reality of Britain’s unacknowledged history and presence of white supremacy and its violence against Black people. Adopting the format of a literal fountain, Walker further incites the viewer to question what and who monuments are supposed to celebrate, as well as to question who has been forgotten in these historical accounts. Rather than celebrating the British Empire, Walker inverts the memorial and questions present narratives of power.

Kara Walker in front of “Shell Grotto” (2019) at Tate Modern, London

“Fons Americanus” (2019) by Kara Walker at Tate Modern, London

“The Fons Americanus is an allegory of the Black Atlantic and really all global waters which disastrously connect Africa to America, Europe and economic prosperity.” (Kara Walker)

According to the artist, the fountain acts as an allegory of the Black Atlantic. The term Black Atlantic originated from Paul Gilroy’s book “The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness”(1993). Describing the fusion of black cultures with other cultures from around the Atlantic, the term furthermore acts as an account to recognise the history and true essence of the Black Atlantic culture by understanding its hybridity.

The fountain here represents an ambiguous medium; one that directly refers to post- colonial American and British monuments, but furthermore acts as an allegory for the Black Atlantic and the transatlantic space trade. As a key theme, the water becomes symbolical of the power systems of white supremacy that comprised the transatlantic space trade. Walker’s fountain acts as a shipwreck. 13 meter high, the fountain’s base is populated with sculptures that make reference to various figures across all cultural fields.

The sculptures further represent one of Walker’s central leitmotifs of grotesque and often violent monochrome sculptural forms. Central to the fountain is its sculpture situated at the top of the work. It is the artist’s depiction of the Venus, an allegorical sculpture that was partly inspired by the figure of the African Venus as depicted in “The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies” (1794), a propaganda image which romanticised and promoted the transatlantic space trade. As the counter figure to Victoria- the golden sculpture from the Victoria memorial, goddess of victory, Walker’s Venus spreads her arm high. The fountain jets gruesomely emerge from her breasts as well as her slashed jugular vein.

Some visitors may miss the “Shell Grotto”, a second smaller monument situated at the entrance of the Turbine Hall detached from the fountain almost like an island as its own entity. The “Shell Grotto” references the ruins of a colonial fortress on Bunce Island in Sierra, a former commercial fort where European slave traders dealt with African merchants, capturing and trading men, woman and children to be sold to American plantations.

Shaped in the form of a seemingly empty scalloped shell, it is further reminiscent of the depictions of the Roman goddess Venus, who rose from the sea inside a giant shell of imaginary size. Here the shell is empty, Walker’s Venus detached, crowning the fountain. Inside the “Shell Grotto” the figure of a young weeping boy emerges only at a closer look, with his head floating just above the water.

“Shell Grotto” (2019) at Tate Modern, London

“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)

Today, as Art Basel opens its annual art fair in the form of an online viewing room, one of the fair’s highlights is the presentation of a new work on paper by Kara Walker, as well as the extensive presentation of her personal archive for “Fons Americanus”. Cardi Gallery invites you to further explore the work on Tate Modern’s website, which includes a comprehensive survey including interviews, podcasts etc.

View Video