Recherche

Review Arts

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus at Tate Modern
The Draughtswoman’s Contract


Visual artist Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus is this year’s commissioned work for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. While addressing the current debates regarding memorials, it goes beyond a mere rewriting or righting of history.

Born in Stockton, California, in 1969, Kara Walker is an African-American visual artist. Her work became known in New York City in 1994, when she presented her first large-scale installation of cutout paper silhouettes at the Drawing Center. Appropriating and transforming the racist items and representations in American visual culture and Western fine art, Walker’s work addresses the long-term psychosocial and political consequences of slavery, confronting systemic racism and sexism. Highly ambivalent, both beautiful and horrific, her art questions the very notions of representation and history. Her pieces are part of major public and private collections; she is represented by Sikkema Jenkins (NYC) and Victoria Miro (London).

Fons Americanus, this year’s commission for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, is Kara Walker’s second endeavor with public sculpture. [1] Modeled as the African-American visual artist’s response to Queen Victoria’s memorial on the London Mall, the entire installation soars at 13 meters high.

JPEG - 163.2 kb
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, Tate Modern, 2019. (c) Matt Greenwood.

Based on her own experience of the space of the hall as a place of rest and play, [2] neither inside nor outside the museum, Walker brings public sculpture in the middle, proffering no less than a monumental fountain.

Sculptural Waterworks

Sculptural waterworks abound in Walker’s work, possibly because her imagery borrows from the would-be genteel lifestyle of Dixie. [3] And this is Walker’s return to the Tate Modern: no less than fifteen years ago, she was commissioned one of her “signature” installations of cut-paper silhouettes, known as Grub for Sharks: A Concession to the Negro Populace, (2004).

JPEG - 179.9 kb
Kara Walker, Grub for Sharks: A Concession to the Negro Populace, 2004.
Cut paper; overall display dimensions variable. (Courtesy of the artist)

Mastering the scale of the hall, simultaneously embracing and deflating expectations of spectacle, Fons Americanus, whose unabridged title one will read printed on the wall, [4] successfully addresses the gigantic industrial space that has been the marker of the Tate’s leadership among modern and contemporary cultural institutions in globalized art worlds since the first Turbine Hall commission to the late Louise Bourgeois (2000). The work attests to Walker’s usual mix of horror and humor, and manages to turn the monumental into something close to dreamlike. The running water binds history and current events together: it is meant as a metonymy of the Middle Passage and the Mediterranean become mass grave. [5]

Walker often parodies the sources of her work in an ironic manner—one may remember how she derided Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the nineties, as a response to what those narratives did to the facts of slavery in their own racist context and in their rather delirious manner. [6] And although Walker’s work has addressed the history of slavery as a global issue for decades now, [7] explicitly confronting the U.K.’s key role in the triangular trade in a painting such as Terrible Vacation, [8] the visual artist had never tackled the very symbols and systems of representation of the former colonial empire so far.

JPEG - 2.3 Mb
Kara Walker, Terrible Vacation, 2014.
Gouache on paper. 184,2 x 405,1 cm. (Courtesy of the artist/ Sikkema Jenkins & Co)

An Ambivalent Post-Monument

In Fons Americanus, Queen Victoria is relegated to the back of the group instead of being its focus, and the memorial’s somewhat dour-looking figure of the deceased queen is replaced by a maniacally-grinning mammy-like figure whose lifted skirts reveal Melancholia as a crouching black male figure.

JPEG - 158.6 kb
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019 (detail), (c) Tate Modern (Matt Greenwood).

“Perhaps Victoria’s own,” proposed Walker at the press conference. [9] What could “Queen Vicky” [10] possibly be nostalgic about? The heavy burthen of queendom? Could her nostalgia be environmental? As sharks ominously roam about in the fountain pool, notably threatening a black male figure referred to as “K. West,” adrift on his three-dimensional version of a Winslow Homer’s painting, [11] might “Queen Vicky” indeed be pondering over the consequences of rising sea levels for, say, the Solomon Islands? [12] Might such brand of melancholy be postcolonial, rather? Most likely, as the “nautical theme” of the original memorial, an allegory of “the United Kingdom’s naval power”, [13] has been reduced to a proportionally minuscule boat that does not even bother to hide its incompletion as a sculpture. [14] It might as well be the toy of a child sailing it in a public park.

The fountain’s water, however, is also meant by the artist as “an allegory of the Black Atlantic, exploring the interconnected histories of Africa, America and Europe”. And with historical allegorical representations of colonial empires in mind, [15] Walker, as often in her work, puts a black female figure back at the center of history—or, more accurately in this case, on top—with a figure out of whose jugular and nipples water flows. Perched atop its pilaster, the figure stands for Walker’s reinterpretation of Thomas Stothard’s now infamous “Sable Venus”, an eroticized depiction of a fettered slave woman, stepping out of a conch as Botticelli’s Venus, and guided through the Middle Passage by a flurry of cherubs and water deities.

JPEG - 172.7 kb
William Grainger after Thomas Stothard, Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, 1801.
John Carter Brown Library (Public domain).

Stothard’s engraving, rightly identified in the exhibition text wall as “propaganda”, reminds us of that not only did the exploitation of human beings have to be travestied into such visions, but more specifically in the case of women, that this exploitation was sexualized—in turn the way to legitimize systemic rape on plantations in the so-called New World. The idealized servitude that Stothard’s image constructs is rendered both sinister and absurd by Walker: her own Venus simultaneously spits water out of her wounded neck (implying suicide) [16] and breasts—harking back to the exploitation of Black slaves as forced wet nurses to white children, yet also strangely comical in its aggrandizement of bodily functions such as lactation. Walker’s Venus is both tragic and comic, while being the principle of life as flow: she is literally the source of the fountain. Thus, Fons Americanus does work as a counter-memorial, as a gesture against the erasure or misrepresentation of Black women in official history. Or at least, the kind of history that needs marble and gilded bronze to think it will last for centuries to come.

JPEG - 3.6 Mb
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus (detail), 2019. (c) Tate Modern (Ben Fisher).

The balance between humor and seriousness in Walker’s work is tightly held in the piece, with the juxtaposition of grotesque groups (“Queen Vicky” and “Melancholia”), light-hearted elements (a figure scuba-diving; a sardonic allusion to Kanye West and his demons, poignant ones (the group showing a boy rescuing a figure from the water that Walker intended as a reminder of the murder of Emmett Till) [17] or chilling (the lynch tree, which seems to have stepped out of an expressionist picture by the likes of Joe Jones or Jose Clemente Orozco). [18]

Some figures appear as plain ambivalent, like the “Captain” at the center of the piece, a combine of Black historic figures such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Marcus Garvey, [19] revisited by Walker’s fancy. Soulful and slightly comical, the “Captain” is flanked by abovementioned lynch tree, and by a figure kneeling in the gesture reminiscent of a famous 18th-century abolitionist medallion. [20] Or that figure might just as well be a white man entranced in religious ecstasy.

JPEG - 458.4 kb
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019 (detail). (c) Tate Modern (Matt Greenwood).

Here, it must be reminded that one of Walker’s inspirations for Fons Americanus was Italian baroque sculpture. Indeed, the very large conch at the entrance of the exhibition, out of which a crying head emerges, owes as much to the grotesque, i.e. the mixture of the animal, human and vegetal that can found in many a fountain in Rome, as it does to Walker’s usual take on the grotesque disfiguration at work in racist caricatures. [21]

JPEG - 445.3 kb
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019 (detail). (c) Tate Modern (Matt Greenwood).
JPEG - 182.5 kb
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019 (detail). (c) Tate Modern (Matt Greenwood).

But again, the praying figure in a wig mentioned above might very well stand as a hypocritical politician, fashioned after Daumier’s satirical busts made out of clay [22]—one of Walker’s aspirations for the piece. Which brings me to my final point, and that is Walker’s take on the monument as a visual artist. By that, I am not merely implying her merry and exhilarating tossing of myriads of art historical and historical references together. And I would argue that Fons Americanus goes beyond a mere rewriting, or righting, of history.

Conjuring vs. Remembering

The piece brings up what the Victoria memorial leaves out; and while Walker’s installation certainly makes a powerful point within the current debates regarding historical monuments—what must be remembered vs. what must be celebrated; who remembers what, and why; what must be taken down vs. what must be set in context, etc.,—the Turbine Hall installation is, to date, her most formally successful take on public sculpture as the visual imposition of those narratives that are no longer seen as “great”. Walker’s earlier work addressing that topic, her Sphinx-like mammy made out of refined sugar, A Subtlety, or: The Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014), paid an enigmatic tribute to the figure of the Black slave woman as the guardian of the memory of a so-called New World based on cane monoculture and slavery.

JPEG - 1.5 Mb
Kara Walker, A Subtelty of the Marvelous Sugar Baby, 2014. Installation view.

Powerful in the way the monumental sculpture showed how memory is actually embodied, [23] it was only through its ephemeral quality that it questioned the legitimacy of commissioned public sculpture as the vehicle of pseudo-collective histories. The violence that characterizes much of Walker’s work was mostly conveyed by the sculpture’s scale, rather than by Walker’s constant movement back and forth between the ugly and the seductive. In other words, Walker’s intentions and the formal result appeared unbalanced. [24]

A year later, Walker presented an exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery entitled Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First, the result of an artistic collaboration with photographer Ari Marcopoulos, based on Stone Mountain in Georgia. A massive photograph of the confederate bas-relief on the mountain by Marcopoulos was presented along drawings, paintings and cutout silhouettes by Walker. One drawing showed Stone Mountains with the figures of confederate officers replaced by the following lines: “FUCKING IGNORANT NIGGERS NEED TO LEARN THEIR PLACE IN HISTORY”, with an arrow pointing “here”, to a black hole on the bottom right corner. Here, Walker’s art was at its most efficient with her use of verbal abuse and the raw quality that pertains some of her drawings—as a response to the visual abuse of a monument that celebrates men who fought for slavery.

With Fons Americanus, the eeriness and sharpness of Walker’s drawings meet the large-scale three-dimensional. Both the figures’ shapes and texture have the urgent yet precise quality of Walker’s mark making. The figures in the fountain are “intentionally rendered in rough form…”. [25] As a matter of fact, they were done after preparatory clay models Walker made in her studio. Walker then worked with a U.K.-based fabrication company in order to “preserve the handmade feel of the pieces”, [26] and the pieces were eventually coated in “sustainable non-toxic materials” including a “solvent-free acrylic and cement composite”, [27] making them look “as if wet clay emerged from the concrete floor”. [28] Contrary to the fake sea treasures rendered in equally highly sophisticated technologies committed by the likes of a certain British art megastar (whose shark in formaldehyde Walker had in mind as she designed Fons Americanus), [29] Walker’s sculptures are firmly anchored in the “realm of fantasy”; [30] they assert themselves as unfinished, precarious; caught in the process of working things out through form; as testimony to the process of mark-making. Such is Walker’s way of addressing not so much the imagery of national and/or colonial memorials as their very efficacy as would-be iconic markers that “get the story wrong”. [31] Thus, it is first and foremost as form that Fons Americanus unsettles and undermines the monumental.

Distance

Even the situation of the fountain in the Turbine Hall literally provides a shift in perspective on the monument: while the sculpture holds its ground against the space’s monumentality, it is, so to speak, a memorial become history: a piece of the old institution brought into the new one. As a museum item, the memorial as form has been stripped of its authority; an exiled—(melancholic) monument, rather than a monument in exile. And as a matter of fact, many viewers can experience Fons Americanus from above, that is, from the walkways that link the Tate’s first building and its extension (the Blavatnik building). In this way, the visual regime and intention of the monument is reversed: no longer prepossessing, Walker’s alternative memorial can be apprehended from a physical distance that becomes metaphorical.

Once more, Walker’s art thus suggests that “history” can only be apprehended at a remove. And a high dose of distance—or aesthetic detachment—one will need, to take in the full extent, implications, and inner tensions of Walker’s Fons Americanus. Curiously enough, no mention of the Tate’s history as enmeshed with that of slavery, (despite the institution’s efforts to acknowledge it), is anywhere to be found in the texts surrounding the piece. Curiouser, the piece stands for the story of global capitalism come full circle: a revision of the rise of Eurowestern domination as relying on the Transatlantic slave trade, funded by a South Korean industrial conglomerate; [32] the reassessment of public sculpture in a privately-encroached “public” space: ironies of history that those sensitive to Walker’s type of humor may find worthy of note.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, Tate Modern, 2019

by Vanina Géré, 10 October

Further reading

Cover picture: Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019, (c) Tate Modern (Ben Fischer).

To quote this article :

Vanina Géré, « Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus at Tate Modern. The Draughtswoman’s Contract », Books and Ideas , 10 October 2019. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : http://www.booksandideas.net/Kara-Walker-s-Fons-Americanus-at-Tate-Modern.html

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team (redaction at laviedesidees.fr). We will get back to you as soon as possible.

Footnotes

[1In 2014, Creative Time commissioned Walker to create a public piece for Domino Sugar refinery that was to be torn down soon after to build luxury condominiums on the Williamsburg waterfront, in the context of the ultra-gentrification of that neighborhood. Walker produced a giant mammy-like sphinx coated in sugar, entitled A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New Works on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant. For a detailed discussion of the work, see Géré, Vanina, Les mauvais sentiments : l’art de Kara Walker, Presses du réel, 2019.

[2Kara Walker, Press Conference September 30 2019.

[3“Dixie” is the sentimental nickname of the Antebellum era in the slave states of the American South. Contemporary tourism in those states keep advertising an aristocratic lifestyle in Neo-Palladian mansions in the shade of trees covered in Spanish moss. Walker’s art unveiled the profound barbarity underlying such lifestyle in the nineties. Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave (2013), after Solomon Northup’s slave narrative, is also a relevant contemporary example of the contradiction between the idealized refinement of life in plantations and the brutality of its reality.

[4“Fons Americanus. The Daughter of Waters”

[5There is a drawing by Walker that is entitled They say water represented the unconscious in dreams (American Primitives, 2005). Water is most often synonymous of the Middle Passage in Walker’s work; in her 2006 exhibition After the Deluge at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, water was a direct address to the social and political catastrophy of Hurricane Katrina and the dereliction of its victims in New Orleans.

[6See Gone, An Historical Account of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994) and The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven (1995).

[7Grub for Sharks is an example of Walker’s global approach to history. I have argued that her work has been increasingly concerned with such an approach since the 2000s, most notably and famously with A Subtlety, or: The Marvelous Sugar Baby. (See Géré, op. cit.)

[82014, a grandiose reworking of J.M.W. Turner’s Slave Ship (1840).

[9Walker, cited press conference.

[10Walker’s nickname for the statue in Fons Americana.

[11Winslow Homer, Gulf Stream, 1889, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Walker added this allusion to Kanye West as a pun on the original text to be read on the right corner of the boat, “Key West”.

[12The Solomon islands, a former British colony, is specifically vulnerable to climate change-induced rising sea levels, but the situation is critical for the Solomons, five of its smaller islands having been reported to have been submerged.

[13Wikipedia, “Victoria Memorial,” London , last visit October 4, 2019.

[14The boat, like all the figures in the fountain, is modeled after small clay figures, drawings and cutouts. Like the figures and objects Walker uses for her films of puppet theater (8 Possible Beginnings or: The Making of African America, 2005, for example, it is looks like a drawing or a paper cutout of a boat; or a bas-relief ornament stripped out of its wall.

[15Walker mentioned, for example, William Blake’s Europe being supported by Africa and America (1796). The engraving is part of a series of illustrations Blake created for the publication of John Gabriel Steadman’s Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796). Stedman’s narrative was published as a means to advance the abolitionist cause. One of the most famous of the illustrations is The Flagellation of the Female Samboe Slave.

[16Ecstatic suicide is also to be found in Walker’s work in the large cutout silhouette Cut (1997), in which one sees a young woman slashing her wrists while suspended in midair. For discussion of that work, see DuBois Shaw, Gwendolyn, Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker, Duke University Press, 2004.

[17See Mitter, Siddhartha. “Kara Walker Takes a Monumental Jab at Brittania,” The New York Times, September 30 2019, last visit October 4, 2019. Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old lynch victim who was murdered in 1955 and had an open-casket funeral at the request of his mother, Mamie Till, was one of the sparks to the Civil Rights Movement. The use of his picture has been the subject of controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016), shown at the 2017 Whitney Biennial.

[18I am referring to Joe Jone’s American Justice (1933), and to José Clemente Orozco’s lithograph The Lynching (1935) for the anti-lynching exhibition The Struggle for Negro Rights, organized by the John Reeds Club and the Artists’ Union in New York in 1935.

[19Walker, Cited press conference.

[20Josiah Wedgewood, Am I Not a Man and a Brother? (1787).

[21In Grub for Sharks, for instance, one can see a crowned and booted male figure with a palm tree growing out of his groin like an erect penis. With that silhouette, Walker conflates the stereotypical representation of Black men as hypersexualized, tropical beings, and the hybrid quality of Italian grotesques. And because the all-black silhouette does not enable to see where anything begins or ends, whether the shape is a penis become tree or the other way around, Walker’s art shares the dizzying quality of indeterminacy that reminds one of fantastical creatures of the grotesque, although much more ominous and disturbing—all the more so because a young child can be seen climbing that palm tree.

[22Walker, cited press conference.

[23I have ventured elsewhere that Sugar Baby’s success as a work of art lay in the way it brought out memory as located within the body, via smells and touch, with the pungent smell of rotting sugar and sticky caramel leaking out everywhere from the broken smaller figures. See Géré, Op. cit.

[24A Subtlety was composed of polystyrene blocks coated with a sugar solution, after sketches, drawings and one small three-dimensional model by Walker.

[25Walker, cited press conference.

[26Siddartha Mitter, “Kara Walker Takes a Monumental Jab at Britannia,” The New York Times, September 30, last visit October 2 2019. More details on the ultra-modern technologies used for the commission in that article.

[27Tate Modern, Press release, 30 September 2019.

[28Walker, press conference Q&A, 30 September 2019.

[29I am of course referring to Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Lind of Someone Living (1991), and his 2017 installation at the Pinault Foundation in Venice (Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana).

[30Ibid.

[31Ibid.

[32The exhibition cycle for the Turbine Hall that used to be known as the “Unilever series” was renamed “The Hyundai commission” in 2015, when Hyundai Motors started financing the art installations in that space; the cycle has retained that name ever since. The particularly aggressive presence of H.M. as donor is an efficient reminder that the Tate’s Turbine Hall is currently as “public” as social media.



© laviedesidees.fr - Any replication forbidden without the explicit consent of the editors. - Mentions légales - webdesign : Abel Poucet