When he was the mayor of London, in 2008, Boris Johnson endorsed a proposal to erect a £4 million bronze statue memorializing the survivors of British slavery. The figures in the proposed monument were to be Black, making it unlike other statues of its kind, which typically pay homage to white abolitionists like William Wilberforce. Johnson agreed that Hyde Park, just a short walk from Buckingham Palace, was “a fitting site for a permanent memorial to the millions who lost their lives.” But now, as Prime Minister, Johnson and the Conservative government have refused to fund the monument, in what many consider a sign of political and cultural regression.
Twelve years on, Kara Walker is showing her own monument to the transatlantic slave trade, Fons Americanus (2019), at Tate Modern in London. The work was instantly praised by many journalists for what they perceived as a subversive take on its subject matter. The New York Times’s review of the work called it a “monumental jab” at Britain’s ugly history; the Guardian’s piece on it echoed that language, calling it a “rebuke” that serves as a “bold subversion of exultant Victorian kitsch.” But one wonders whether a more introspective version of the monument was possible—and whether Walker was the right person for the job at all.
Regardless, people have seen the work in droves. Three million visitors are expected to enter Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall before Walker’s piece is removed on April 5, and the attraction to it may derive, in part, from its grand ambitions: Walker has said she is presenting Tate with a “gift to the heart of an Empire that redirected the fates of the world.”
Fons Americanus alludes to the history of the Victoria Memorial, a statue near Buckingham Palace of Queen Victoria, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch before the present one. (The proposed memorial that Johnson endorsed would have stood less than a mile from it.) At 65 feet tall, the Victoria Memorial features a gilded winged Victory standing on a globe with various allegorical figures around it. Ships, mermaids, and other marine life decorate a fountain at its base. Victoria’s 65-year reign coincided with the shift of Great Britain from a colonial power to a maritime juggernaut. Under Queen Victoria’s tenure, the Industrial Revolution transformed British society—and manufacturing worldwide. At the time, Great Britain was the most powerful country on earth—truly “the empire on which the sun never sets.”
Walker’s version is almost half the height of the Victoria Memorial and is made with sustainable materials, such as cork, soft wood, and metal. At its crown, the arms of a character typical of Walker are outstretched wide enough to receive the sky. Venus is bare-chested with a sarong wrapped around her waist. Her head is thrown back, causing her back to arch—which makes sense for a figure with a slashed throat that is erupting water. From the nipples of her bare breasts flow two more spurts.
It’s right in line with other work by Walker, who is known for combining sex and violence through silhouetted scenes of the Antebellum South that make visible brutal histories of racism and misogyny. 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.”
Art history from Europe and America is often a frequent point of reference for Walker—in particular the paintings of J. M. W. Turner and Winslow Homer, who serve as inspirations for Fons Americanus’s tense imagery. In Homer’s The Gulf Stream (1899), there is a capsized ship with a floating passenger who is seemingly oblivious to a gnawing shark at his feet. In Walker’s work, that man returns, but behind him is a dreadlocked maroon wearing a snorkel and swimming away from sharks not unlike the ones that trailed slave ships from one edge of the Atlantic to the other, feasting on human remains thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.
This is a work intended to bring history back to the present—an idea made literal through some of Walker’s allegorical figures. Her sculpture features a captain, who sits stoutly at the front of the fountain synchronously representing two Black men, Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743–1803) and Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), who led quests to dismantle European imperialism at very different points in history. To the left of the captain is a tree from whose branch dangles a noose, an innocent and silent witness to the history of lynching. To the captain’s right, a kneeling man—a slaver—pleads remorsefully. Humbly positioned at the back of the fountain, Queen Victoria herself forces a smile while a despondent figure crouches under her skirt. A Nefertiti-style headdress substitutes for Victoria’s famed widow’s cap.
In Fons Americanus, Walker is navigating complicated interwoven historical strands. Another sculptural element of the fountain has a young Black child peeking out from inside a scallop shell, his head angled in agony as tears flow from his eyes into a puddle. Descriptions of the work connect his solitude to the commercial fort on Bunce Island in Sierra Leone where the highly valued rice-growing skills of the indigenous people made it one of the most lucrative slave-trading operations in West Africa.
In a film accompanying the work, available via Tate, Walker says, “I’m not an actual historian, I’m an unreliable narrator.” We should take her at her word. Despite her attempt to explore the interconnected histories of Africa, Europe, and the Americas, Walker insists that “slavery didn’t exist on [England’s] shores”—a common misconception that a rudimentary Google search would prove wrong. Unabashed by her own ignorance, Walker recently told the Guardian: “From my perspective, [the U.K.] always seemed a fairly advanced place to be. To be Black and British and get a good education and have a good vocabulary and not have this legacy of systemic violence and educational and economic oppression.”
In the Guardian, Walker said she was only forced to contend with her misguided perspective after news of the Windrush Scandal, a widely publicized controversy in 2018 that erupted around the systematic deportation and detention of Black British citizens by the U.K. Home Office, many of them of Caribbean descent, who had come to England as children as part of the Windrush Generation. As recently as February 11, the Home Office attempted to carry out a scheduled deportation of 56 people to Jamaica. Despite a last-minute court ruling and more than 150 cross-party MPs urging Johnson to stop the flight, only 25 people were allowed to remain in the U.K. In the wake of such activities, Walker’s sentiments expose a disappointing and offensive lack of understanding that would allow for such a flattening of Black British life and history.
But the onus falls on Tate, too. With three of her works already in the institution’s permanent collection, and following her first project at Tate Liverpool in 2015, Walker joins a long line of African-American artists who have benefited from the myth of American exceptionalism in British institutions. One can almost understand why Tate thought to choose her for the work. Walker has been critical of public monuments for years, long before others were focused on the subject, and she has been widely praised in America for works such as a 35-foot-tall sugar sculpture of a mammy figure situated in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar Factory. But the commissioning of Fons Americanus as a counter-memorial to colonial public monuments is unconvincing because it fails to do what any good statue should—deal with its site and the context surrounding it.
Walker has done nothing to wrestle with the history of Tate’s founder, the sugar merchant Sir Henry Tate, who many have said profited from the employment of slaves. On its website, Tate tells us, “Raw sugar imported from the British Caribbean by the Tate or Lyle companies in the post-slavery era would have been from estates established under slavery but worked at that point by wage-laborers and by indentured labor.” Tate removes itself from responsibility through the creative titling of exploited labor. The generational consequences of centuries of sugar production by enslaved Africans owned as property will always be tied to the land, its raw materials, by-products, and all beneficiaries through primary and secondary markets.
If it were afforded the same resources and an international stage, could a community-based and collaborative process involving Black British artists have resulted in something more nuanced? It certainly seems that any attempt would have done so. And if such a project were to be undertaken, I’d suggest artist Hew Locke as its leader. Born in Edinburgh, Locke spent his formative years in Guyana, arriving just in time for Independence from Britain. Locke has been celebrated for his innovative amalgamations of history and modernity. His elaborate and embellished model naval ships rely on freighted symbolism as a way of pondering British control in war, trade, and culture. He has spent decades appropriating the iconography of sovereignty while undoing the mythology that guides it.
Since the mid-1990s, Locke has spent his career reappropriating the iconography of sovereignty: vessels, heroes, banknotes, costumes, regalia of state, and the Queen herself. After the financial crash in 2008, Locke began collecting company share certificates and painting on the surface of the paper relics that once represented fortunes. The amount of money borrowed for the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act was so large that it wasn’t settled until 2015, meaning that British taxpayers like myself and Locke were still paying off government debt borrowed to pay millions in compensation to wealthy slave owners. Knowing this I wouldn’t associate Britain with being a “fairly advanced place to be.”
Walker is no stranger to spectacle, and her use of it has often obscured some of the debates surrounding her art. In a press release for a 2017 exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. gallery in New York, Walker, referring to herself in the third person, predicted that “Students of Color will eye her work suspiciously and exercise their free right to Culturally Annihilate her on social media”—essentially dismissing critiques such as mine in advance as a by-product of intergenerational disagreements over politics and forms of expression. For many, a blind allegiance to Black artists, especially women, is a self-preserving practice of community-building. But tenacity does not trample care or respect, and to fully engage with this work, we need to talk about it for what it is: an unnuanced portrayal of a subject Walker doesn’t know enough about. If Walker is, as she claims, offering a “gift,” I choose not to accept it.