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Kara Walker Satirizes Britain’s Public Sculptures with a Monument to Trans-Atlantic Slavery

Kara Walker upends the Tate Modern with a massive fountain, renewing the debate about the nature of public monuments in the heart of violent empire.

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus at Tate Modern (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — Teeming with sharks, slave ships, pirates, a Venus, and an obscure reference to a mysterious “K. West,” Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus — a massive marble fountain dedicated to the victims of trans-Atlantic slavery — has entered the pantheon of iconic Turbine Hall projects at London’s Tate Modern.

At the very top, a curvaceous Venus angles her neck upward, spouting water from her mouth and nipples. Below, pirate-like characters sit atop a plinth presiding over a circular base with numerous slave ships and people floating among a basin of dead sharks. The boats are modeled on those that used to traverse the Middle Passage and the maritime trade that endured from the 17th to 19th centuries. The British Empire used these same boats to colonize the globe, building a massive, powerhouse economy and kidnapping hoards of Black people from the African continent to maintain its violent, imperial reign.

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus at Tate Modern

The 42-foot-high monumental sculpture is rife with allegorical references to the horror and violence of trans-Atlantic slavery, but also references other notable art-historical objects like the Trevi Fountain in Rome, Winslow Homer’s 1899 painting “The Gulf Stream,” and even Damien Hirst’s shark suspended in formaldehyde. Its initial inspiration is the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, a monument to 19th-century Queen Victoria.

During a press tour earlier this week accompanied by Tate Modern curator Clara Kim, Walker called her project a “sardonic counterprogram to the celebration of empire,” linking the installation to debates around Confederate monuments in the United States, where she lives and works.

“It’s only really recently that there’s been a concerted national conversation about these monuments, about how they got there and what they mean,” she said.

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus at Tate Modern

Hoping that her Turbine Hall monument will spark wider conversation about racism and the role of art in public space, Walker said she hopes projects like this will prompt more discussion about how slavery continues to manifest in different ways, including today along the Mediterranean where migrants continue to be human trafficked.

Walker’s latest project at the Tate Modern points to a continuity within her body of work that links capitalism to the abuse of Black people throughout the ages. It can be considered an extension of some of Walker’s other monumental works, like “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby,” the massive, sugar-coated sphinx-like figure that she installed inside a former Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn.

Kara Walker: Fons Americanus at Tate Modern

Kara Walker’s Hyundai Commission, Fons Americanus, continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London SE1 9TG) through April 5, 2020. The installation was curated by Clara Kim.

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