The theme of this blog post has emerged from my fascination with Kara Walker’s latest artwork, Fons Americanus which is currently on display at Tate Modern. The main reason behind my choice to write on the specific piece is principally the fact that I have not seen it yet and how completely and utterly devastated I feel about this.
There’s something about Kara Walker’s work that screams me; The artwork demands for the spectator to be there, not only to see, but mostly to feel and to sense; to be present.
Kara Walker is an American contemporary painter best known for her black cut-paper silhouettes. Her work deals with race, gender and violence. What’s mostly genius about her approach though is that she deals with these controversial topics by ‘mocking’ the stereotypes.
Perhaps the best way to understand Fons Americanus is by looking at it as a monument dedicated to the victims of British slavery. The enormous sculpture is occupied by human figures and sharks which are accompanied by the running water. Kara Walker was deeply inspired by the Queen Victoria memorial outside the Buckingham Palace, one of the many European sculptures/fountains celebrating imperialism, the State and the Empire. Fons Americanus performs as a counter-stereotype, urging the spectator to remember what was meant to be forgotten by the structure of our society today.
I thought it would be fun and simultaneously interesting to make one of my best friends who was in London a month ago to go and see the artwork and give me feedback (she loves me TOO much). Having no prior knowledge on Kara Walker or the artwork itself, she wrote down her thoughts after her experience of viewing the fountain.
These are her notes, exactly the way she sent them to me:
-The faces portrayed on the fountain were disturbing, like people literally drowning
-The apathy of the pirate not even looking at the people drowning
-The water around the fountain is too shallow for the sharks-are they escaping from something?
-The posture of the woman(laid back; hands hanging) à highlights how devastated/helpless/desperate she is à her breasts are also exposed à only female; the rest are male à violated?
The powerful emotion that radiates from the artwork is of no requirement of prior knowledge on the piece and this is exactly what I wanted to prove by having my friend go there. It does not only manage to capture the pain, violence and sorrow of the slave trade but it also makes the spectator think, question what they are being exposed to.
I asked her to comment on the atmosphere of the room and the other spectators present; She used the words ‘silence’, ‘confused’, ‘worried’ and ‘concerned’. She also thanked me for telling her to go and see it and was so fascinated by it that she had to go on google and read Kara Walker’s whole process in creating it.
Her work is genius and heart-breaking. Stunning and upsetting. But it sure manages to do one thing: it strikes and affects you in ways you are unprepared to by just changing the narrative we have all accepted. I urge you to go and see the sculpture because I certainly will and won’t forgive myself if I don’t.
Written by Maria Mavri.