"Fons Americanus is an allegory of the Black Atlantic, and really all global waters which disastrously connect Africa to America, Europe, and economic prosperity."
So says artist Kara Walker, who created the installation Fons Americanus at the Tate Modern art museum in London. This multi-sculptural work was displayed from October 2019 to February 2021 in the huge, open Turbine Hall of the former power generating station on London's River Thames, Bankside. The work was demolished, and materials recycled, at the end of the exhibition. It can only now be seen through photo and videographic records.
Kara Walker is an artist whose work explores ideas around identity, race, sexuality and violence. The Fons Americanus is an allegorical account of Britain's colonial past and the transatlantic slave trade in particular. It draws heavily on colonial and other cultural references from past and
present. Perhaps the most moving work of art I have ever experienced and certainly one that I will never forget. I saw this colossal work several times and was more than once moved to tears, yet at the same time strangely uplifted by this exquisitely perceptive appreciation of this alternative account of British colonial history. Despite the horrific story this work told, I cannot help but view its conclusions as fundamentally optimistic for the fate of humanity and civilisation. Whether this was the intention of the artist, I cannot say, but I like to think it was. Kara Walker was quoted as saying “I have created a space for reflection—joy, even—amid the miasma of conflicts: racial, economic, and cultural, which still lodge themselves into our collective gullet.” To me, this artistic interpretation of our collective hold on racial and other conflicts of past and present speaks louder than any written history of the era or contemporary social commentary that I have read.
The central, monumental structure is a fountain with an image of the goddess Venus showering water into the font below from each of three points. Two of these are the nipples of each breast, the third being a deep gash in the goddess's neck. The symbolism suggests that Venus is at once
feeding, as well as being sacrificed to, the images that comprise the rest of the allegory. Despite her pain and her own destruction, Venus continues to succor history, humanity, the present and future.
The fountain is modelled on the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace, an object that will have been seen by the world during the King's coronation procession. With this comparison, Walker shows a stark contrast between Victorian celebrations of Empire and current debates about race, class, and national identity.
The images surrounding the Fons mimic those of the Victoria memorial and indicate various scenes and figures that speak of the horrors of the process of kidnap and enslavement of people from the African continent.
Other parts of the installation demonstrate further details of that history and human displacement. Perhaps the most moving of all is the scallop shell that is modelled on the Botticelli Birth of Venus. Instead of the newborn Venus stepping out of the shell, we see a small boy cradled within.
The boy is shedding a steady stream of tears in a heart-breaking image of weeping, not just for himself, his family, his lost loved ones, but for all enslaved peoples and the whole of humanity.
To really appreciate the impact of this work, you would need to have visited it in its place in the huge central 'Turbine Hall' of the Tate. Seeing photographs of this monumental installation does not give a true appreciation of the scale and magnitude, not to say the raw power, of this breathtaking work.
In this video presentation Kara Walker speaks of the work and how she came to create it.
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus was exhibited at Tate Modern in London from October 2 2019 to February 7 2021.
Author Ray Taylor, is a volunteer at Tate Modern. Any views expressed are his own and do not reflect the policy of the museum, curators or the artist, none of whom were consulted on this article.
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About the Creator
Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.