Art break: Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus at the Tate Modern

by Sunita

At the end of our Fen Rivers Way walk we spent a couple of nights in London. One of our main goals was to go to the Tate Modern and see the current installation in the Turbine Hall. I’d read about Kara Walker’s new work in the Guardian and we felt really fortunate that our trip would overlap with the exhibit. We were staying in Holborn and it was one of those cloudy/sunny London days, so we walked down to the Tate in the morning. There wasn’t much of a crowd yet, and the Turbine Hall is free to enter.

Walker’s sculpture is a reimagining of the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. That original piece was commissioned as a celebration of the Queen-Empress and her accomplishments, complete with a Winged Victory statue at the top. Walker’s has Venus in its place, one who spouts water from both breasts as well as from her neck.

It’s a breathtaking piece which interrogates imperialism, the 19thC fetish for nationalist and imperial monuments, and the UK and US’s still under-examined and very partial understanding of the consequences of their imperial enterprises. The nautical aspects of the original work here call forth memories of the Atlantic slave trade, with the ships lost as sea, the families torn apart, and the sharks that filled the waters (the sharks are also a reference to the famous Damien Hirst shark in formaldehyde).

There are statues who reflect the fetishized and exaggerated physical depictions of black men and women in American and British paintings and sketches. There is a lynching tree.

Everywhere you look, there is something to remind you that the slave trade and its effects were part of a path from the Old World to the New, one that had different effects in different places, but which inextricably bound together empires, republics, and democracies.

I’m no art critic, to put it mildly, so I’ll leave you with more photos. We found Walker’s work to be powerful, unsettling, and effective. I’ll never look at either of the Victoria Memorials I’ve spent time around (Buckingham Palace and Kolkata) again.