Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

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Kara Elizabeth Walker (1969 – ) is an American contemporary artist. She is known as a painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. Last year (2019) she made the Fons Americanus a large scale public sculpture that tackles issues of race and colonialism head-on for the Tate’s Hyundai Commission.

“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, in an interview with the Tate, 2019.

Exploring Fons Americanus by Kara Walker

Kara Walker, Tate Interview, 2019.

A monumental gift to Empire

Photograph of Kara Walker's 'Fons Americanus' at Tate Modern
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, Tate Modern Hyundai Commission, 2019, Tate Modern, London, UK.

Fons Americanus plays with the idea of monuments, such as the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace. It brings direct attention to the history of violence against Black people of Africa that underpins the history of Empires.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, detail, 2019, Tate Modern, London, UK. Source: Tate Modern, photos by Matt Greenwood.
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, Detail
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, detail, 2019, Tate Modern, London, UK. Source: Tate Modern, photos by Matt Greenwood.
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, Conmmemorative Plaque
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, Conmemorative Plaque, 2019, Tate Modern, London, UK. Source: Tate Modern, photos by Matt Greenwood.

The full title is on the wall of the Tate’s Turbine Hall. It is a text that encourages us to confront a history often misremembered in the UK. Here, Walker’s signature reads ‘Kara Walker, NTY’, or ‘Not Titled Yet’, in a play on British honors awards such as ‘OBE’ (Order of the British Empire).

Reconfiguring narratives and the figure of Venus

Walker uses the art historical figure Venus several times in the artwork. For example, a smaller sculpture, Shell Grotto, sits in front of the main fountain. A scalloped shell (cf. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus) encases a drowning boy.

Shell Grotto references a colonial fortress on Bunce Island in Sierra Leone where men, women, and children were captured and sold into slavery.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, detail, 2019, Tate Modern, London, UK. Source: Tate Modern, photos by Matt Greenwood.

The sculpture Fons Americanus confronts us with the historical violence against Black bodies and racism that continues today. It also challenges white supremacy in art history. Atop the fountain is a majestic black Venus taking center stage in the story that Walker is re-telling.

Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies (1801) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, 1801, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, UK.

This reacts to the image The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies by Thomas Stothard (1755-1834). In it, Stothard portrays Venus as an African woman as propaganda to promote the transatlantic slave trade.

‘The amniotic fluid at the beginning of this journey is now transformed into mother’s milk and lifeblood. Mother, whet nurse, whore, saint, Host, lover—she is the daughter of waters.’

— Kara Walker, in an interview with the Tate, 2019.

Walker’s figures of ‘The Black Atlantic’ – an Art Term

The fountain of Fons Americanus presents an allegory or extended metaphor of the Black Atlantic. This is an art term that describes the fusion of black cultures with other cultures from around the Atlantic. It is a term coined by Paul Gilroy in 1993 that argues that the culture around the Atlantic is deeply shaped by the slave trade. ‘The Black Atlantic’ can describe other contemporary artists like Chris OfiliEllen Gallagher, and Glenn Ligon who explore blackness through a wide range of sources.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, detail
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, detail, 2019, Tate Modern, London, UK. Source: Tate Modern, photos by Matt Greenwood.

Walker’s figures all symbolize different ideas around the transatlantic slave trade and violence. They also reference an array of art-historical, literary, and cultural material.

Water and Sharks – references to art history

“I looked at a grand panorama of a whaling voyage and considered the Black Atlantic as its been represented in art by Turner, Homer, Copley and sailors themselves…my fountain yokes together racist representation and violent expression of power.”

— Kara Walker, in an interview with the Tate, 2019.
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, detail, 2019, Tate Modern, London, UK. Source: Tate Modern, photos by Matt Greenwood.
Winslow Homer - The Gulf Stream -
Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.
John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark
John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, National Gallery of Art, USA
Joseph Mallord William Turner Slave Ship at Boston Museum
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Slave Ship, 1840, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA.

Images in this article are all from this ‘Look Closer’ article by the Tate (accessed 06/04/2020).


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Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus was first posted on June 19, 2020 at 5:00 am.
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