Kara Walker, installation view of Fons Americanus, 2019–20. Photo: © Ben Fisher

Kara Walker


Tate Modern

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus, created for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, is a brilliantly trenchant and brutal anti-monument to Britain’s shameful, often overlooked role in the slave trade. Rich in allegorical detail, it loosely echoes the iconography of the Victoria Memorial, a wellspring of patriotic fervor topped by a gilded bronze Winged Victory and flanked by statues of Queen Victoria, Truth, Justice, and Motherhood. Walker’s four-tier fountain, in contrast, tweaks the symbolism. An exuberant Venus of African heritage crowns the composition, her head thrown back in an ecstatic pose while water spouts from her neck and breasts. Below her, the four cardinal points are occupied by a lynching tree with a noose and three figures who challenge official narratives of British colonialism and black representation. Queen Vicky, presented as a voluptuous woman in African headdress, bears a coconut, with a naked figure cowering in her skirts; a Kneeling Man symbolizing a wily European plantation owner pleads remorse or obsequiousness; and the Captain—an amalgamation of historical black heroes such as Haitian revolutionary fighter Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743–1803) and fictitious black characters like the megalomaniacal Emperor Jones of Eugene O’Neill’s eponymous 1920 play—sits hands on knees with an expression of defiance or determination.

The sculptures placed on two tiers surrounding the base allude to the Middle Passage, weaving together art historical representations of slavery, blackness, and sharks. Distressed figures in shark-infested waters recall J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840), which depicts slave traders throwing their human cargo overboard as a storm approaches. (Walker’s large-scale watercolor Terrible Vacation [2014] offers another response to Turner’s painting.) On the lowest tier, a shark lunges at a boy in a boat, a clear reference to Winslow Homer’s 1899 painting The Gulf Stream. In the catalogue notes, Walker links these marine predators to Damien Hirst’s stuffed shark of 1991; she titles this portion of her fountain The Physical Impossibility of Blackness in the Mind of Someone White.

Walker also included a second, smaller element in the installation. Shell Grotto, a giant scallop shell of the type that carries Venus to Cythera in countless paintings, appears to be approaching the fountain. Rather than bearing a triumphant goddess, this shell engulfs a black boy. His tearful face peers up as if from a well, alluding to the punishment for rebellious slaves at a West African trading fort.

Walker is best known for her cut-paper silhouettes, drawings, and sculptures that unflinchingly depict antebellum tales of racial and sexual atrocity—works that shine a light on the enduring trauma of slavery. In 2014, she created her first monumental sculpture in a former sugar factory in New York. The ironically titled A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby consisted of a colossal sphinx with a mammy’s head, constructed from polystyrene blocks coated in sugar to highlight the ignominious link between slavery and the sugar industry. The 26-foot Fons Americanus shares the bleached white color and caricature aesthetic of A Subtlety, although the fountain is made from reusable cork, metal, and wood. Tate, too, is indirectly connected to the legacy of slavery through its founder, the sugar merchant Henry Tate, who benefited along with the rest of the industry from slave labor.

A wall label sardonically employs the lexicon of the fairground as a guide to response: “Gasp Plaintively, Sigh Mournfully, Gaze Knowingly And REGARD the Immaterial Void of the Abyss etc. etc.” Turbine Hall can indeed invite a carnival atmosphere—the collective Superflex filled the space with swings in 2017—but it can also become an arena for solemn reflection, as with Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003), which drew early attention to global warming. Walker’s sculpture, bestowed as a gift to the “citizens of the Old World,” stands as a reproof to British complacency at having championed abolition at home while ignoring and profiting from the slave trade practiced in its colonies for decades afterward.

Fons Americanus gets under the skin. Appropriating the bombastic language of increasingly challenged colonial memorials, Walker has made a provocative and explicit monument to an ugly past whose legacy continues to reverberate today. Coinciding with Britain’s exit from Europe and a worrying nostalgia for its imperial “glory,” Walker’s gift has become an urgent and opportune warning.