History of British slavery retold in fountain unveiled by Tate Modern

Described as a “counter-memorial” to the horrors of slavery, a new monumental fountain has been installed in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

Kara Walker’sFons Americanus’ ignites fresh debate about the history of British colonialism with its provocative exploration of race, sexuality and violence.

The dazzlingly white fountain emerges from two oval basins filled with water and features African figures, a noose hanging from a tree and drowning slaves thrown from a ship. Surmounting the 13-metre high sculpture, an African-Caribbean version of the goddess Venus spouts water from her breasts and a gruesome neck wound.

I think as an American girl coming to Europe for the first time as an art student, I was perversely moved by the grandeur of the palaces,” explained Californian-born Walker. “Because it really is very jarring when you think about what that’s built on the backs of.”

Tate’s Hyundai commissioned piece draws inspiration from the Trevi Fountain in Rome and alludes to Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark (1991), Winslow Homer’s ‘The Gulf Stream’ (1899) and JMW Turner’s ‘Slave Ship’ (1840).

Walker was also deeply influenced by the Queen Victoria memorial outside Buckingham Palace, which she spotted by chance during a taxi drive.

On my way to the airport, we drove past it and I took pictures immediately as it’s the sort of thing that gets my heart racing – allegorical figures on that scale. It took another six months before I thought that this was the kind of thing I should investigate further,” said Walker.

Ranging from etching, sketching and even sugar work, Walker is an incredibly versatile artist who has taught extensively at Columbia University. She is best known for her giant sphinx-like figure that was housed in an old sugar factory in 2014.

Reflecting upon her Turbine Hall commission, the contemporary artist described the opportunity as an “irresistible…grand prize.” Walker also explained how she delved into the history of race and Britain in preparation for the commission.

Tate Modern curator, Clara Kim, believes the epic sculpture will open up new channels of debate in Britain; “we hope that it encourages people to visit the commission itself, and then go back out into the city to look at where these monuments come from and the official accounts of our histories.”

‘Fons Americanus’ opens to the public on 2 October 2019 until 5 April 2020 in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern.

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