Kara Walker Fons Americanus: In this new series, Art Critic, Poet and Novelist Sue Hubbard discusses seminal contemporary artworks.
History moves fast. A great deal has changed since the American artist Kara Walker’s Hyundai Commission Fons Americanus was first shown in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall back in October 2019. The world has been hit by a killer pandemic unprecedented since 1918. Art galleries, theatres and cultural venues have been closed. The world economy is in freefall, and a black man has been brutally killed by the American police (not, sadly, a usual event in itself) but this time captured on video for all the world to see and shared on a thousand Twitter feeds and FB pages. No one can claim they didn’t know; that it was a Communist plot against white America or an accident. It was murder. Homegrown white on black American murder.
Fons Americanus becomes a focus for reflection. A place where we can consider the ongoing legacy of xenophobia and economic corruption – SH
And the result? Well, it’s hard to know whether this will finally be the turning point for black rights, along with an admission by the west as to just how much of its wealth is dependent on the legacy of slavery. It is difficult to know whether the Black Lives Matter campaign, and the ensuing spate of iconoclasm – including throwing the 1895 bronze statue of slave-trader and Member of Parliament, Edward Coulston, into Bristol harbour, has changed how we view history. Will we now read memorials differently? Should they all be removed? Coulston was a philanthropist as well as a slave-trader, but sadly the statue only commemorated the former fact, not the unpalatable truth as to how he acquired his ill-gotten gains. Will the pulling down of such ‘undesirable’ memorials lead us to be more truthful in our analysis of history from now on? Will imperialist veils be pulled back to reveal the many ugly truths that have been buried about our past for too long? Or will such acts simply contribute to a further whitewashing and erasure of history, as has been suggested by the Nigerian-British historian David Olusoga?
When the doors of Tate Modern are re-opened, Kara Walker’s sculpture will resonate with an added frisson because of recent events. It will, no longer, be ‘just’ a comment on ‘history’, a worthy academic analysis of the ‘past’, but an artwork that forces us to accept that racism remains endemic, not merely the heinous crime of a crumbled empire. That it belongs to now, not just to then and, is, therefore, all of our responsibility.
Before the killing of George Floyd and the toppling Coulston, Walker’s work could be read as a clever contemporary comment on imperialism and slavery. A postmodern pastiche on the Victoria Memorial that stands confidently outside of Buckingham Palace and, a nod to the pomposity and sense of entitlement of the Albert Memorial and the many, now, unknown generals riding high around the city on their tall plinths. Walker has claimed that her work functions as a one-person version of the 19th century World Exposition. These glorified trade fairs, filled with works of art, exotic zoological gardens, and the latest scientific wonders, told the approved story about the economic might of Empires and their colonised subjects. The four-tiered fountain explores, with both wit and poignancy, how we have chosen to create historic narratives through stereotypes of race and gender.
Water becomes a binding theme: oceans, waves, journeys from Africa to Liverpool, from Bristol to America, in which millions of Africans were forcibly transported to the New World. Thousands of men, women and children died in this exchange known as the Middle Passage. Ships departed from Europe for African markets with our manufactured goods that were traded for kidnapped Africans. Flesh became a commodity. Lives were turned into objects of commercial exchange.
A black woman stands three meters above the gallery floor spouting jets of water from her mouth and breasts into the shallow shell-like basins bellow. The empire, it’s implied, was literally fed by the milk and blood of those it enslaved. Below are a cast of characters, caricatures of black pop culture and images of blackness borrowed from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are echoes of Turner, and the 24 Negro Melodies composed by the English mixed-race composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose father came from Sierra Leone. So many are implicated as beneficiaries of the slave trade in this story of coercion, cruelty, economic manipulation, murder, rape, and ecological destruction.
Kara Walker unpacks the stories we tell ourselves about the past in order to feel good about who we are to see ourselves as heroes rather than villains. Fons Americanus becomes a focus for reflection. A place where we can consider the ongoing legacy of xenophobia and economic corruption that still remains embedded in our modern world. It also, implicitly, suggests an alternative to the destruction of historic monuments; the creation of new more truthful ones that shed light on different, more educated versions of the past.
Art can’t change the world, as George Steiner made clear in his essay: To Civilise Our Gentleman. The Nazis were made no less bestial because they butchered Jews by day and wept over Rilke at night or were moved by concerts given by the inmates of Theresienstadt who the next day would disappear up the chimneys as ash. Picasso’s Guernica didn’t stop the bombing of the Basque city of that name, or Goya’s Disasters of War change the course of the Peninsular War. Neither did John Singer Sargent’s painting depicting the line of wounded soldiers shuffling towards a dressing station after a mustard attack during the First World War, save the lives of young men sent like donkeys to the front. And yet? Such works mirror ourselves back to ourselves, not as we might like to see ourselves, but as we actually are.
Words: Sue Hubbard Photos Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2020
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist, and freelance art critic. Her latest novel, Rainsongs, is published by Duckworth, Overlook Press, US, and Mercure de France.