Born in Stockton, California, in 1969, Kara Walker explores the notion of race, gender, violence and sexuality, presented in a clever, witty, and often shocking art. Starting her career in the early 1990s, she is best known for her silhouette works, which tell stories of the black experience set in the American South during the slavery period.
My first experience in seeing the work by multidisciplinary artist Kara Walker took place on a typical hot and humid New York summer’s day in July 2014. Queuing for almost an hour outside of the (then-soon-to-be demolished for riverside apartments and offices – hello gentrification!) abandoned Domino Sugar Refinery located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to see the A Subtlety art installation.
Once inside the derelict building, I was met with more than fifteen ‘sugar baby’ sculptures and of course the 75-foot-long and 35-foot-tall sphinx-like figure, made up of polystyrene blocks and covered in over 40 tonnes of white sugar, to act as skin. The Androcephalous statue, positioned at the centre of the factory confronted visitors almost instantaneously, (not however, before they had signed a disclaimer acknowledging that they were aware of the risks of the possible remnants of Asbestos left in the factory) with the head of the sphinx portraying an exaggerated ‘mammy’ archetype – broad nose, big lips and headscarf, and once at the back, a large posterior resembling the anatomy of Sara Baartman aka Venus Hottentot. The sculpture demonstrated the Walkers’ ability to create large scale works and #takeupspace.
Kara Walker Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern
So, when the Tate announced in March 2019 that they had chosen Walker to tackle the Turbine halls 85-foot-high and 500-foot-long space, I was instantly intrigued. What would the first black female artist to receive the award create for a site whose previous recipients include Ai Weiwei, Olafur Eliasson, and Anish Kapoor?
The result… Fons Americanus, a 13-metre-tall fountain sculpture inspired by the Queen Victoria memorial monument seen outside of London’s Buckingham Palace and a smaller sculpture titled Shell Grotto, inspired in part by the shell-like vessel in the work of Italian painter Sandro Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ and etching by English painter Thomas Stothard in ‘The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies’ – which borrows from Botticelli’s scene, replacing the representation of Venus with one of a black African woman.
Shell Grotto sees a weeping boy surrounded by a pool of tears, and pays homage to Bunce Island in Sierra Leone, Africa – a slave trading post.
Shell Grotto Kara Walker Fons Americanus Tate Modern 2019 (detail). Photo: © Tate (Matt Greenwood)
At the top of Fons Americanus is a Venus-like figure, continuing the Botticelli and Stothard references, is the source of the fountain’s water, which flows from the woman’s cut throat and breasts – another reference this time to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, whose monument bares water from her many breasts.
Image: Venus / Fons Americanus (c) Ben Fisher
Fons Americanus is the second site-specific work Walker has exhibited in a location that holds historical links to the sugar trade. The Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn is located behind the East River, while the Tate Modern is located on the River Thames: they share a geographic reminder of the transatlantic slave trade between The Americas, Europe and Africa. Henry Tate, for whom the Tate Britain and Tate Modern galleries are named, has come under much scrutiny for ties to the slave trade which made Mister Tate a wealthy man thanks to sugar production in the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th century.
Sugar is one of the many commodities which contributed to the USA’s and UK’s economic growth during this period, and interestingly the Tate & Lyle company was sold in 2010 to the same corporation that owns Domino Sugar. The sugar premise continues with the portrayal of a Kneeling Man said to be Sir William Young, a British colonial governor who owned sugar plantations and enslaved labourers in the Caribbean. Walker depicts the man on his knees in a pleading poise situated next to a representation of Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture, a former slave turned Military General who organised and led the country to its independence from France and Spain in 1804.
Fons Americanus also follows the recent I Am Queen Mary (2018) statue, inspired by Mary Thomas – a key figure of the 1878 St Croix LabourUprising in the Danish West Indies. The monument, co-created by artists La Vaughn Belle from the US Virgin Islands and Jeannette Ehlers from Denmark, was erected at the Danish West Indian Warehouse on the Toldbodgade waterfront in Copenhagen in March 2018, commemorating the country’s sale of the Virgin Islands to the United States in March 1917, and acknowledging its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
Walker’s installation cries out for these clever and subtle suggestions to be found and unravelled as the work explores the shared and so often misinterpreted colonial history. The above are just a few of the possible references presented on the four-tier fountain that asks audiences to reconsider how history has been taught and represented. Signing off the piece as ‘Kara Walker NYT (‘Not Yet Titled’) – taken from the acronym OBE (‘Order of the British Empire’) a title typically awarded by the Queen to those in the public eye for their services and contribution – is the artist’s final clever play on how the British Empire came to be.
HYUNDAI COMMISSION KARA WALKER ON NOW AT TATE MODERN, LONDON UNTIL 5 APRIL 2020
Watch more of Kara Walker on Fons Americanus: