Tate Modern’s sloped and cavernous Turbine Hall, at over 3000 sq meters, is a cold space, slouching by the river Thames. It’s both entrance and thoroughfare. It hurls you into the pit of action, yet, unless the exhibiting large-scale artist determines to entrap you – like Rachel Whitehead’s miniature city of polyethylene cubes, Embankment (2005), or Empty Lot (2015), Abraham Cruzvillegas’s maze of triangular trenches of London park soil – you pass quickly onto the business of ticketing and upstairs to the other shows.
Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus, now showing till the end of November 2020, is a grotesquely elegant tiered fountain that attacks the history of slavery and Empire. Walker presents a frozen, white and pale turquoise shipwreck of lynchings, rape, shark attacks and rebellion. It’s a good spot for a monument, I suppose, except the Turbine Hall’s passing public is highly selective.
Street monuments, by contrast, haunt everyone. Deceptively invisible, they pervade our hurried days, quietly sculpting the corners of our psyche, whispering their version of history. Walker’s take on Imperialist monuments would right now be better shifted outside to the riverside quays. Or better still, dismantled and scattered through the streets of Westminster. Enshrined by the Hall, it’s big, but not that big – and looks a little too contained and too exuberant for the despair of Black slavery that continues by another name.
The fountain is a rebuke to London’s Victoria Memorial, glimpsed by Walker one day from a taxi. Arriving last October, before the recent Black Lives Matter protests, it kept its own counsel during the first London Lockdown, when galleries went dark.
Showing since the Tate has reopened, the fountain speaks to this moment in public history. Walker’s subversion of gaudy Victoriana now seems a prophetic jinx on the pulled-down British statues of slave traders Edward Colston, Robert Milligan and Cecil Rhodes, as if she had called their destruction into being. I’m sure many new visitors, this Autumn, will find in it an even more urgent anger. But for me it raises mixed feelings. You might say that this is the function of political satire, like James Gillray, catching us laughing at stereotypes. But I find its chuckling jarring in some places, if deeply moving in others. The erratic finish of some characters, I imagine, is intended to show the grabby savagery of Empire. But ferocity and comedy, yoked in one monumental cast, are in danger of cancelling each other out.
The work has a voodoo energy at odds with its form. Sculpted roughly and smoothly, parts of it looked rushed and hand-hewn. If Walker had chosen to focus on her tragic figures, this might be one of its strengths. Kidnapping and brutalizing people into slavery, transporting them imprisoned on ships from which their dying bodies were thrown to sharks is, after all, a messy business. However, when the neatness of these discs of rippling turquoise water meets the more cartoonish flourishes of this floating hell, meanings become jumbled.
Let us start with the whiteness. The white statue, in the West, tells a story of purity and elevation, whether it’s Michelangelo’s David or La Pieta. Walker’s piece, like The Victoria Memorial in Kensington and its cousin in Kolkata, another Victoria Memorial, is wedding cake white. The whiteness of her Fons Americanus tries to satirize the white man’s haughty retellings of fancy heroes in grand poses that conceal their crimes.
The piece is presided over by a doughty Black rebel sea dog, a butchered Black Venus and a jubilant Queen Vicky, frolicking in, as it were, blackface. Across the floor is Shell Grotto, a sleeping cherub captured in an oyster shell. Seen individually, each piece proclaims its argument with vim.
Queen Vicky has been given stereotypical African features and a turban, instead of a crown. Cavorting like a Creole dancer, a coconut replacing mother’s milk at her indecorously naked breasts, she parts her skirts to shelter – or engulf – a crouching tragic African. The story of an Imperialist good white mother is brilliantly satirized – as is the slur of sexual deviance imputed to Black women.
The ravaged Black Venus, atop the fountain, is a more tragic figure. Her life – motherhood and breath itself – is being taken from her.
The traditional eroticism of a Venus statue is pierced, here, by the facts of Imperial rape. Her throat slashed, her milky breasts and gasping mouth gushing water, she is voluptuousness plundered. Her stripped skirts swirl. Her watery dance is suggestive of female figureheads – and the women at home, serving the patriarchy – who fronted many a colonial ship. But the charm of her rounded helplessness, unnerving in itself, cannot help but feel somehow trivialised by the cartoonish lynching tree and Black sea captain below her. Put together with these, she’s more sexy than traumatic.
The Captain, modelled partly on revolutionary Haitian leader, Touissant L’Ouverture, is, like Queen Vicky and the grotesque kneeling white governor beside him, sculpted like a character from a political or child’s cartoon. Seated astride a wooden stool, his little belly overhanging his belt, his fabulously curly beard and nonplussed gaze are detailed with jazzy vigour – and indeed, Walker has described getting a “jazzy feeling” on seeing The Victoria Memorial and seeing what she how she might retell the story of Empire.
But ultimately, I’d like less jazz, more feeling. Walker has spoken of “the pompousness, the overmuch” of Imperial statues. But her overmuch, here, undoes the singular thrust that the monumental style best suits. My heart is captivated by the incidental figures, cast adrift by colonial pillage: the mutely slumbering infant, an innocent pearl in the Shell Grotto; the boy straining out of a well, or stony coil of Atlantic pillage, his features briskly sculpted and tear-stained. These voice the silencing of Black stories more effectively, for me, than the overhead brou-ha-ha.
Walker suggests her work is a “misreading of Empire.” She has declared herself an unreliable narrator. And why not? If the artist is from an oppressed group of people, they are informed by lived experience and can express themselves as they please. When the overriding cultural story is guff, a cackle may be needed, more than a chuckle.
But I don’t find the merriment of the Fons Americanus subversive. Maybe I’m missing a sense of humour. Maybe humans need tragedy to be entertaining in order for it to be cathartic. Or maybe we don’t deserve catharsis – that’s another dodgy consolation of Western art. For me, this piece plays too amusedly with itself. Touches like the fitting of goggles and a snorkel to an escaping boy belong to a comic-book style that lightens rather than darkens history. And to what end? As recent events have shown, this period of colonial abuse is far from over. If you utilise a colonial form for your own narrative, are you really subverting it?
Perhaps my problems with the work are a reflection of my own discomfort. Ultimately, despite my family’s personal degradation, I’ve benefitted, in terms of education and relative wealth, from a world created by Empire. Like a monument, facets of colonialism become inextricably moulded.
Indeed, the building currently housing the Fons Americanus belongs to a gallery founded by sugar merchant Sir Henry Tate, whose gigantic corporation, Tate and Lyle, profited from sugar cultivation founded on black slavery. And questions of elite high-handedness about the Tate itself, are currently raging. Under Covid, the Tate has been the recipient of a £7 million bailout. As I write, employees protesting the sacking of over 300 workers, have mounted pickets outside the Turbine Hall, arguing that workers have been pushed out in favour of outsourcing their jobs to profiting corporations.
Kara Walker is not, of course, obliged to single-handedly destroy institutionalized inequality. But that is her subject, in the large-scale pieces she creates. Seen individually, in street spaces, the boy trapped in a white coiling well, or Queen figure, might challenge our complacent days. As it is, this cornucopia of popeyed woe and laughter seems satisfied to entertain rather than provoke.
by Soma Ghosh
Follow Soma on Twitter @calcourtesan
Fons Americanus shows at The Tate Modern till 30th November.
All photos copyrgiht Tate Modern.