Uniqlo Tate Lates: Kara Walker – The evil of an empire

Fons Americanus by Kara Walker at the Tate Modern. Photograph: Jessica Pennell

The American artist Kara Walker brings us Fons Americanus which is a 13-metre working fountain inspired by the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, London.

Walker displayed just two pieces: a towering, faux-Victorian fountain, and a smaller piece shaped like an oyster. Both pieces, captivating in their own way. 

The creations depict prominent issues from history that are also relevant today. The magnificent fountain titled in old-timey prose. 

It states, ‘an allegorical wonder’ which is based on the Atlantic crossings in the era of empire and slavery. ‘Come, one and all, to marvel and contemplate/the monumental misremembering’s/of colonial exploits yon…in a delightful family-friendly setting.’

The sweeping shapes, elegant tiers and the delicate stream of pattering water entices you into the piece. But when looking a little closer this isn’t your normal Victorian memorial. 

This tells a sad story of slavery, “merchant trade” and colonisation. The piece explores the connection of histories between Africa, Europe, and America. 

Walker’s monument illustrates white supremacy built on black degradation. The intricate detail defines the figures in different ways: the clothing each figure is wearing attempts to tell the story. 

The human figures which decorate the fountain are alone, abandoned and drowned in misery. Others are swollen with greed and pride. 

The black men, women and children who have been exploited are made prominent within the piece. All the characters around the fountain are seen dancing to death. The off-white colour of the fountain creates an image of decay: the rotting of something after it’s been used.

Walker specifically used water as a key theme. The water represents the transatlantic slave trade and the fate, ambitions and tragedies of people from the three continents. Fantasy, fact and fiction meet at an epic scale. At the top of the fountain a woman celebrates in triumph – however, her throat is slit, spurting the fountain’s water like blood. Her clothes are ripped and her breasts are bare.

The piece has been made in an environmentally-conscious process. It has been built from recyclable or reusable metal, cork and wood. The surface covering is made from non-toxic cement composite and acrylic that can be used for casting or sculpting.

The smaller sculpture on display is shaped like an oyster. Inside the shell, where there should be a pearl, is a child’s face with tears streaming down its cheeks. The child is vulnerable. With a stand-out feature like the childlike gap between the teeth. The child should be treated as a pearl; treasured and protected. 

Walker’s work was displayed at the monthly event at the Tate Modern: Uniqlo Tate Lates. The evening is held in the art gallery on the last Friday of each month except December. The event lets the public view artwork in the Tate between 18:00 – 22:00. There are usually guest speakers, workshops and DJ’s providing the evening sounds. 

There are multiple bars within the venue for you to celebrate that ‘friday feeling.’ The event is free which is perfect for everyone, especially students. The event was set up to let people discover and explore creative learning. A real mix of art, music, film, pop-up talks and workshops to get involved in the capitals creative scene. 

Walker is the first black woman to headline the Turbine Hall. Her work is on display at the Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London until 5th of April 2020. 

Similarly, Tate Britain’s late-night event is on the first Friday of every month.

By Jessica Pennell