Kara Walker at Tate Modern Review: Venus, Sharks and the Sadism of Empire

At the Turbine Hall, the artist turns the Victoria Memorial inside out, populating her counter-monument with memories of colonial violence

At the pinnacle of Kara Walker’s 13-metre-high fountain in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, a Black woman’s breasts and slashed jugular spurt water. It is horrifying. Maybe not so when you perceive the water as emerging only from her breasts, although the supposed excess layered onto Black femininity might jump out, but it chills to locate the source of that third arc, swishing and tinkling as it does, cutting a curve so elegant. Tate’s wall text for Walker’s Fons Americanus (2019) describes a Venus with arms splayed to gesture her ‘liberation’. But Venus appears dangerously off-balance; are her arms flung out for help? This queasy mix of the sadism enabled by Britain’s imperial project and the idylls of the imperial imaginary (fountains, monumentality, leisure) submerges viewers in the psychic waters that Walker’s work dredges.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Matt Greenwood

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Matt Greenwood

The late theorist Stuart Hall famously unfolded the perverse dynamic between British pleasure and Black subjection in his 1991 essay ‘Old and New Identities’: ‘I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth [...] That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English.’ Bringing the outside history inside has been the project of numerous Black British artists whose work subverts Empire’s monuments and heraldry, including Hew Locke and Yinka Shonibare. Following in that tradition without explicitly naming it, Walker inverts the Victoria Memorial – a marble and gilt monument to Queen Victoria in front of London’s Buckingham Palace – to populate Hall’s ‘other history’ with figures that look hand-worked and urgently rendered.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Ben Fisher

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Ben Fisher

In the fountain’s basin, sculptural figurines crouch, gasp, mourn, are exhumed, paddle and await death amid see-sawing sharks. The structure’s higher tiers explicitly parody London’s celebratory monument to the Empire-expanding queen. In Victoria’s place sits a captain with legs splayed, a cocky amalgam of freedom fighters throughout history: Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jamaican Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey and the fictional Emperor Jones of playwright Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 invention. At his side, the rampant lion of European heraldry kneels with claws retracted. Sara Baartman – a South African Khoikhoi woman who, from 1810 to 1814, was toured in the UK and Ireland as a freak-show attraction named the ‘Hottentot Venus’ – appears clothed, wearing an isicholo and shielding a hunched figure with a whip-scarred back under her skirts. A noose swings from a tree with aggressively pruned limbs.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Matt Greenwood

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Matt Greenwood

The spouting Black breast recurs throughout Walker’s work. In the 1998 installation Camptown Ladies, a cartoonishly large drop of milk springs from the breast of a Hottentot Venus figure while her baby excretes into a white woman’s mouth. The lactating Venus in Fons Americanus also speaks to gendered histories of extraction: enslaved women forced to wet-nurse white children and deprive their own of milk; high infant mortality rates on West Indian sugar plantations that left lactating mothers childless; and Britain rewriting its laws of descent to exploit enslaved women’s reproduction and convert their babies into slave-owner profits. Closer to the Turbine Hall’s West entryway, a child’s crying face breaks the surface of the water inside a scalloped shell, echoing the shell surrounding Venus. Too far from the child to breastfeed, Venus lactates on a loop, her blood and milk feeding the fountain’s closed circuit instead.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Ben Fisher

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Ben Fisher

Although Walker’s hand has been present in previous works – appearing in silhouette in her shadow-puppet films – here its trace feels distinct. The fountain’s central pedestal retains the striations and unevenness of hand and tool, its surface rendering physically visible, and metaphorically restituting, the labour of Africans worked to death on British-owned plantations. More intimately, the artist’s fingers and thumbs groove the figurines’ bodies, lending movement and fleshliness to her Black forms. There is an inkling that Walker might stay a while with the interiority of these Black figures who, in the silhouettes of her previous work, are summoned primarily as visual testimony in her battle with US racial representation. But the weight of the references, the scale of the piece and the vastness of the space overwhelm these stories.

Fons Americanus places in conversation the sharks that stalked slave ships to feed on the enslaved Africans whom slave traders threw overboard and the renowned formaldehyde shark of British artist Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) – a move that pokes at the repressed memories of colonial violence which thrash in even the most smartly conceptual white British unconscious, and that suggests an additional lineage for reception of Hirst’s work. Fons Americanus hovers 19th-century Baartman near 20th-century Emmett Till to situate Empire as having ‘conditioned the forms of liberty’, both material and psychological, available to Black people, to quote US cultural historian Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection (1997). Mostly, the work addresses itself to the Empire and its full ‘citizens’, which Black people, regardless of passport, are structurally prohibited from being. Amid the familiar representations of Black agony, the work points to the danger shared by Black people of the Old and New Worlds: the snorkel-wearing swimmer may be kitted out in modernity, but that is no defence from the sharks that continue to move through the centuries of this collapsed time-space.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019, is on view at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall until 5 April 2020.

Main image: Kara Walker, Fons Americanus​, 2019, installation view, Tate Modern, London, 2019. Courtesy: Tate Modern; photograph: Ben Walker

Derica Shields is a writer and programmer from South London. She is currently developing a multi-format oral history project centring on black people’s accounts of the UK welfare state, and completing a book project on failure.

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