Wednesday 8 January 2020

Fons Americanus - Kara Walker

 Fons Americanus by Kara Walker in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

'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'.

Fons Americanus is a large-scale public sculpture in the form of a fountain. It questions how we remember history in our public moments, whilst at the same time, it presents a narrative on the origins of the African diaspora. It is inspired by the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, which was designed in 1901 to honour Queen Victoria.

Rather than a celebration of the British Empire, Walker presents a provocative critique. Her fountain inverts the usual function of a memorial and questions narratives of power. Walker explores the interconnected histories of Africa, America and Europe. She uses water as a key there, referring to the transatlantic slave trade and the ambitions, fates and tragedies of people from these three continents. Bringing together fact, fantasy and fiction, Fons Americanus is an allegory of the Black Atlantic.

Encouraging us to confront a history often misremembered in Britain, she presents the artwork as a 'gift … to the heart of an Empire that redirected the fates of the world'. She has signed the work 'Kara Walker, NTY' or 'Not Titled Yet', in a play on British honours awards such as 'OBE'.

Walker's sculptural figures derive from an array of art, historical, literary and cultural sources.

The figure of Venus stands at the top of the fountain. For the artist, this is a priestess from Afro-Brazilian and Caribbean religions. Water springs from her breasts and neck, representing a history of violence and suffering but also a possibility of liberation as she towers over the monument as the 'daughter of waters'.

Another artistic reference is Damien Hirst's formaldehyde shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

and J.M.W. Turner's Slave Ship

Images of the Roman goddess Venus, standing on a shell, have inspired the grotto sculpture in front of the fountain

In place of Venus, is a crying boy, filling the shell with his tears.

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