The Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve stood by this fountain with Mauritian friends and family, statically frozen for that photo moment, being a tourist in London. It’s an iconic, majestic monument, but I never really paid much attention to it other than that it was an attractive historical site to see and to pose for that souvenir photograph what would end up in some relative’s album.
This would be so in the personal albums for people from all over the world who come to sightsee in London. Do we pause and reflect on what these historic monuments and statues symbolise? I don’t think most of us do, but at some point many of us will – thanks to Google, Wikipedia and the world wide web, we now have knowledge literally at our fingertips.
London is awash with public monuments and statues; 828 according to The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association. We are reminded of the British Empire everywhere we walk – my local libraries in Streatham and Brixton are named after Sir Henry Tate (1819 – 1899), the millionaire sugar industrialist who lived in my beloved Streatham and paid for the creation of three libraries in Lambeth, and the Tate Britain building.
Queen Victoria, the Empress of the British Empire, features prominently in London’s pyscho-geography. As the Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng writes “It is not surprising that Queen Victoria features so prominently in buildings and monuments. Her reign gave birth to ‘jingoism’ and a real sense of national pride in British imperial accomplishments. It was in the 1890s, after all, that Cecil Rhodes is reputed to have said to Lord Grey: “You are an Englishman, and have subsequently drawn the greatest prize in the lottery of life.”
The Victoria Memorial is a seriously blinged-up example of this jingoism. Unveiled in 1911 but finally completed in 1924, it cost about £200,000 paid for by public contributions and funds gathered from around the British Empire – Australia, New Zealand, and “during 1902 a number of tribes from the west coast of Africa sent goods to be sold, with the proceeds going towards the fund” (Wikipedia).
Across the world, particularly in the USA, Africa and the UK, the gloss, idealism and heroism of figures of Empire are being called into question with demands for some statues to be pulled down as they mask the reality of European and imperial colonial violence, enslavement, exploitation and plunder. The Rhodes Must Fall movement that began in March 2015 in South Africa for example, has inspired a much wider demand to decolonise history, education, culture and other forms of knowledge. It has also inspired demands for specific statues and monuments to be pulled down such as those of Confederate generals in Charlottesville, to Mahatma Gandhi at the University of Ghana, and now too in Manchester.
It is within this context that we turn to Tate Modern’s latest Hyundai Commission to fill the cavernous Turbine Hall. Kara Walker’s 13 metre memorial fountain titled Fons Americanus was inspired by The Victoria Memorial facing Buckingham Palace. Walker is a successful African-American artist known for her tableaux like narratives that act as counterpoints to the dominant narratives of history and race; ‘my work has always been a time machine looking backwards across decades and centuries to arrive at some understanding of my “place” in the contemporary moment’ she writes.
Walker’s fountain sculpture transforms The Victoria Memorial from a shiny, smooth, gilded bronze and marble feature into a grotesque, Goya-esque, caricatured baroque, hybrid mash-up that interrogates the glorified symbols of Empire. It’s a visual inter-text of other artworks, historical and mythical figures that arrest the British monument from its codes of European idealism.
In place of the gilded bronze statue of the Roman goddess, Victoria or “Winged Victory” which stands atop the Victoria Memorial, Walker’s figure is a woman with arms outstretched, her head tilted skywards, with streams of water spurting from a neck-wound and her nipples. She is frozen in mid-movement – attacked, throat slit? Fertility goddess? Goddess of the oceans and seas?
In Walker’s work, Queen Victoria is replaced by an exaggerated African male, dressed in a naval Admiral’s outfit sitting proudly, legs apart, his face jutting out. Who is he? Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s? Or could this be a theatrical masquerade, when slaves would make fun of their European masters through exaggerated mimicry? We have sharks, ships, a noose hanging from a tree branch, African figures drowning, escaping, rescued, melancholic figures, sorrow and biting tragi-comedy laying bare the roots of European colonialism.
This is “Rule Britannia” visually sampled and distorted.
There is also a section in the work where a male figure is lifting onto another male figure above the water, his face mutilated that echoes the atrocity of the brutal killing of the 14 year old Emmet Till who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Other artworks are reference points in Walkers fountain and this could be a nodding tribute to Dana Schutz’s painting of Till, Open Casket (2016) that was subjected to protests and demands for its destruction by black British and African-American artists when it was shown at the Whitney Biennial in New York. Walker, unlike some activist artists such as Hannah Black, defended Schutz’s right to make a painting about this subject on her Instagram account. There is also a figure of a male slave figure on a small boat, perhaps escaping from a slave-ship, seeking safety from the shark-infested waters. The boat has the inscription K. West. Could this be referencing the controversial rapper/hip-hop artist Kanye West who was slammed for saying “slavery is a choice” in May 2018?
Why has Tate Modern commissioned this work? The recent curation of the Turbine Hall commissions have become increasingly overtly political. Tate is explicit about its rationale for commissioning Kara Walker: “…in the wake of recent student demonstrations to take down monuments that celebrate colonial histories in both the US and UK. Fons Americanus turns the celebration and honouring of monuments inside out. The monument asks uncomfortable questions by exploring a history of violence against Black people of Africa and its diaspora that is often unacknowledged.”
The museum is seeking to redress its Eurocentric history and perhaps also to salve its guilt that Henry Tate was a Victorian industrial sugar magnate. A popular myth is that Tate benefited from slavery. This is untrue, slavery was abolished when Tate was 14 years old, he or his family never owned sugar plantations nor slaves. He was a Victorian industrialist, and the raw sugar that was imported to his refineries were more extracted by indentured labourers initially from China, then mainly from India.
There’s more to Walker’s temporary fountain monument than meets the eye. The tableaux are frozen animations, full of visual references, a tragi-comical performance that collapses history into a frieze-like faux-marble display of an imaginary seascape of horror, freedom and the dignity of the black subject throughout British, European and American history. Rather than demand that problematic monuments be erased or pulled down from public space, Walker is asking us to go beyond the smooth surfaces and to enjoy the biting masquerade and compassion where the black subject can be ambiguous, comedic and tell other stories. I would advise the spectator to resist the Tate’s over-earnest political intentions and enjoy Walker’s dynamic fountain sculpture on its own terms.
Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus is on display until 5 April 2020 at Tate Modern.
Manick Govinda is an independent arts consultant, artists mentor, curator, project manager and writer. You can follow him on Authory.