Slavery Refined for Liberals
by Annie Markovich
When it was possible to visit the Tate in person, toward the end of February, all the press packs for Fons Americanus were gone. A double bill with Olafur Eliasson’s In Real Life drew crowds, and on a Friday night Tate Turbine was packed, hopping with a dance club atmosphere. Massive halls, which seemed to be looking distractedly around while searching for something. “Check it out”, the walls announced.
In keeping with the Turbine’s size, a massive 42-foot sculpture made of ‘recyclable or reusable cork, wood and metal’ in the middle of the ground floor near the main entrance dominated. Kara E. Walker’s fountain, Fons Americanus, a Hyundai commission, was to be on view until 5 April, 2020. From afar, the fountain looked cartoonish, Jeff Koonish in scale, a confection of white clay, an invitation to look closer in the cold, hollow Turbine Hall.
Up close, here was an historic reminder of slavery in Western society within the United States and Britain. Taking a closer look hurt. As a white female I feel unqualified to write about this topic. I am not an historian and the subject of slavery both black and white is continually being addressed, researched and revised. All I can do is share my gut response of attraction and repulsion.
Fons Americanus addresses systemic endemic racism in the Western world by sculpting a people imprisoned in slavery, from images of captains on the high seas. Acclaimed artist Kara Walker has succeeded in riding the wave exposing America’s and Britain’s role in the slave trade, which scarred humanity and continues to plague our collective conscience.
In a review for Artnews (February 26), African American artist Rianna Jade Parker wrote:
‘African-American artists have accused Walker’s distressing scenes of being inappropriately titillating, with Howardena Pindell and Betye Saar among her biggest detractors. In the 1991 PBS series I’ll Make Me a World, Saar said, “I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves, particularly women and children; that it was basically for the amusement and the investment of the white art establishment.”’
Fons Americanus presents women, children and men as stereotypical images of the way African people have been depicted in thousands of cartoons and drawings.
Fortunately, Art can offer another way of representing Black Africans as heroines and heroes reinterpreting African form as spiritual warriors, victorious and nuanced. The lack of subtlety negates the nobility of a creative people who gave their lives in the cause of freedom.
Tate Modern, Turbine Room, exhibition has been extended.
Volume 34 no 6 July / August 2020