Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus, emphatically propels Black History into the collective consciousness.

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Kara Walker, Fons Americanus at the Tate in London
Kara Walker, Fons Americanus at the Tate in London

Veni Vidi Vici. The sentence attributed to Jules Cesar encapsulates the way history is crudely memorialized in public spaces. Grandiloquent and gilded statues often favour the single perspective of those who came, saw, and conquered. Of these constructed heroes, we are collectively required only to remember their reported gestures of self-sacrifice, courage, and endearing ability to triumph against all the odds.

Absent from these collective hero-making narratives is the fate reserved for those condemned to death or lives of servitude, once their territories were conquered. But now, at last, their stories of subjugation and resilience flow unbounded from the pierced neck and the bosom of the African looking Venus that, stands atop Kara Walker’s monumental Fons Americanus installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Three streams of water continuously flow down the gigantic 4-tier sculpture into the two lower basins.

These oval basins are a sea of torment where, half immersed sharks and sea creatures are lurking while a young black girl, oblivious to the imminent danger, snorkels. A figure is adrift in a raft marked K West, while a large slave ship is smoothly continuing its voyage. Towards the back of the basin, another figure has all but drowned. Only the tip of its face is above water, and you wonder, for how much longer? Another character has already succumbed to the bullets that ripped through its body and is being pulled from the water. One side of the upper tier of the sculpture features a soldier, unusually portrayed seated, while on the adjacent side, a menacing noose is hooked on a loose branch.

These deftly positioned figures, characters, and symbols encompass a double reference. First, an array of British artistic references from William Turner’s 1840 ‘The Slave Ship’ (initially called Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying), to Thomas Stothard’s ‘The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies’ (circa1800). The characters in Fons Americanus are also fragments of a transnational, transcontinental history that tethers Africa to Great Britain and America. Strands of that common history have developed and gained their specific characteristics in each country and continent. However, Fons Americanus is a compelling reminder that they are bound together in the subjugation and commodification of the Black body, and its subsequent near-erasure from public spaces.

The water here is awash with anguish and despair, a far cry from the tranquil serenity in which the Victoria Memorial bathes, the monument that inspired Kara Walkers’ Fons Americanus. Erected in 1911, the monument positioned in front of Buckingham Palace is a memorial to Queen Victoria. Although Great Britain was by then a parliamentary democracy, Queen Victoria’s lengthy 63-year reign in the 19th century was marked by the expansion of the British Empire to its largest size. Thomas Brock, the sculptor of the monument, wittingly infused the memorial with symbols of progress, emblems of peace and justice, and signs that evoke courage.

Towering 25m high at the end of the mall, the monument was designed to express the grandeur of both the late Queen and the Empire. However, the memorial has blindly kept out of sight and consideration, people from the Empire, ironically, whose labours and resources contributed to its funding. The stories of the horrors they endured have been written out of history books or neatly reduced to tiny footnotes when they are mentioned at all, making their perspectives wholly marginal.

With few exceptions, such as representations of Martin Luther King Jr, There is a long history of invisible borders that confine Black stories to specialised, Black communal spaces. In contrast, the official account of the “winners” is celebrated in public and extensively shared as universal. In creating a giant monument that stands at 13 meters and abounds with Black historical references, Kara Walker is not only formulating a critique of a single memorial. The artist has wrestled Black Experience – past and present – from the confined temporality of Black History month, from the private or communal Black spaces, and propelled it into the public arena to raise a wide range of questions. What are the functions of art in public spaces? In western multicultural societies where descendants of “victors” and “vanquished” rub shoulders and are considered equals, how and where should their shared history be portrayed?

The violent nature of slavery, its foundational role in the development of America, and the extension of the Empire are central themes in Kara Walker’s artistic practice. In 1997, she was awarded a Mac Arthur Fellowship for her sometimes transgressive, always striking, silhouette imageries that explore racial relations, colonialism, and stereotypes attached to black bodies. In 2005, Kara Walker’s short film, 8 Possible Beginnings or The Creation of African-America, addressed sexual and economic exploitation during slavery. However, she is best known for her gigantic sugar sculpture, ‘A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby’ (2014), installed in an abandoned sugar factory in Brooklyn. Shaped as a monumental Black female sphinx, the white sugar-coated sculpture exposed anew how the production and consumption of sugar were underpinned by slavery. Throughout her work, Walker has relentlessly revisited past historical events, drawing attention to forgotten tragic episodes and turning viewers’ attention to the exploitation past and present, that Black people have endured.

In an accompanying proclamation written in old English, Kara Walker has declared Fons Americanus “a gift and talisman toward the reconciliation of our respective Mother-lands, Afrique and Albion.” In an interview published in aperture, Bryan Stephenson, whose Equal Justice Initiative has inaugurated a museum dedicated to enslavement and mass incarceration (National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery), has insisted on the sequence between truth and reconciliation. “You have to tell the truth first.” He continued, “you have to create a consciousness around the truth before you can have any hopes of reconciliation.” In these troubled times, one might be tempted to add: you have to tell the truth in public first and move beyond the simplistic visual renditions of Veni Vidi Vici. That’s what Fons Americanus does: it reveals to the public the horrors on which rested the gilded trophies and progress brought on by the Empire. The sculpture is an illuminating example of what should inhabit our shared public spaces: talismanic memorials that thwart the possibility of historical amnesia.

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