by Anthony R. Green
In this second part of a 3-part BIBA Blog (culminating on BIBA Sunday), I will explore a recent work by Kara Walker. Born in Stockton, CA in 1969, Kara Walker is celebrated as a painter, silhouettist, print-maker, instillation artist, and film maker, even though she does so much more. As an almost native Rhode Islander having grown up in Providence, I am proud to write that Ms. Walker studied at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). In London, the Tate Modern is one of the more celebrated modern and contemporary institutions, and it is also highly respected abroad. The building is giant, and their relatively new second wing expanded the already grand space so dedicated to modern and contempary visual art. When walking into the main entrance of the original building, it is always fun to check out what is installed in the grand, open space located in the middle. The first time I went, there were slides (playground slides) that I slid down. My farorite so far has been a long crack in the middle of the floor, which revealed so much. Kara Walker's recent work Fons Americanus (American Fountain, or American Spring) is in this grandiose space. I was very happy to come across a work by a Black woman in this grand space!
The full title is a long, witty charicature, painted on the wall near the fountain. It reads: It is with an Overabundance of Good Cheer and Great Enthusiam that We Present the Citizens of the OLD WORLD (Our Captors, Saviours and Intimate Family), A GIFT and TALISMAN Toward the Reconciliation of Our Respective Mother-lands. AFRIQUE and ALBION WITNESS! the FONS AMERICANUS - THE DAUGHTER OF WATERS - An Allegorical Wonder. Behold! The Sworling Drama of the Merciless Seas, Routes and Rivers, upon which our dark fortunes were traded and on whose frothy shores lay prostrate Captain, Slave, and Starfish alike. Come, One and All, to Marvel and Contemplate "The Monumental Misrememberings" Of Colonial Exploits Yon. Gasp Plaintively, Sigh Mournfully, Gaze Knowingly, And R E G A R D the Immaterial Void of the Abyss etc. etc. in a Delightfully Family Friendly Setting ----- Created by that Celebrated Negress of the New World , Madame Kara E. Walker, NTY.
Upon first encounter, I noticed the grandness of this work. It is, in a word, stunning. While walking around the main part of this fountain, I could not help but get uncomfortable whenever I saw a shark. Some time ago, in my personal reading about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I remember reading about how sharks would trail the ships because of the large quantity of blood they released into the waters. Ms. Walker's full title evoked this fact when I saw the sharks. It is also quite easy to see this work and question the role of "monuments" in the United States, and how so many of them celebrate certain people and certain stories while completely dismissing others. Is Ms. Walker's Fons Americanus an example of what a public fountain would be that functioned in the opposite way?
Last but not least, while the giant fountain is the central focus of this work, my favorite part is the smaller shell located across some space from where the main fountain is. The shell contains the face of a Black child peaking through a hole. Immediately I asked myself: Is this child a "pearl"? Is this child about to experience a new life as "Venus" like in Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus"? Did this child just escape a trans-Atlantic slave ship and is coming up for air through this shell? Is this shell symbolic of new life, better life, earned life after extreme pressure and struggle? I could keep asking questions exploring the many avenues of symbolism in this tiny piece, which - for me - gave this satirical yet poignant, powerful work an strong aspect of uplifting positivity.
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