Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Fons Americanus by Kara Walker

Isla Phillips-Ewen 4 February 2024 min Read

Kara Elizabeth Walker, born in 1969, is an American contemporary artist. She is known as a painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. In 2019, she made Fons Americanus, a large-scale public sculpture that tackled the issues of race and colonialism.

The Fons Americanus is an allegory of the Black Atlantic and really all global waters which disastrously connect Africa to America, Europe, and economic prosperity.

Kara Walker, in an interview with the Tate, 2019.

Exploring Fons Americanus by Kara Walker

A Monumental Gift to Empire

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, 2019, Tate Modern, London, UK.

Fons Americanus played with the idea of monuments, such as the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace. It brought direct attention to the history of violence against Black people of Africa that underpins the history of empires.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, Detail

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, Conmmemorative Plaque

The full title was on the wall of the Tate’s Turbine Hall. The text encouraged us to confront a history often misremembered in the UK. On the photo above, Walker’s signature reads “Kara Walker, NTY”, or “Not Titled Yet”, in a play on British honors awards such as “OBE” (Order of the British Empire).

Reconfiguring Narratives and the Figure of Venus

Walker used the art historical figure Venus several times in the artwork. For example, a smaller sculpture, Shell Grotto, sat in front of the main fountain. A scalloped shell (cf. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus) encased a drowning boy.

Shell Grotto referenced a colonial fortress on Bunce Island in Sierra Leone where men, women, and children were captured and sold into slavery.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus

The sculpture Fons Americanus confronted us with the historical violence against Black bodies and racism that continues today. It also challenged white supremacy in art history. Atop the fountain was a majestic black Venus taking center stage in the story that Walker is re-telling.

Kara Walker Fons Americanus Thomas Stothard, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies (1801) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Fons Americanus reacted to the image titled The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies by Thomas Stothard (1755-1834). In it, Stothard portrayed Venus as an African woman as propaganda to promote the transatlantic slave trade.

The amniotic fluid at the beginning of this journey is now transformed into mother’s milk and lifeblood. Mother, whet nurse, whore, saint, Host, lover – she is the daughter of waters.

Kara Walker, in an interview with the Tate, 2019.

Walker’s Figures of “The Black Atlantic” – An Art Term

The fountain of Fons Americanus presented an allegory or extended metaphor of the Black Atlantic. This is an art term that describes the fusion of black cultures with other cultures from around the Atlantic. It is a term coined by Paul Gilroy in 1993 that argues that the culture around the Atlantic is deeply shaped by the slave trade. The Black Atlantic encompasses the work of other contemporary artists like Chris OfiliEllen Gallagher, and Glenn Ligon who explore blackness through a wide range of sources.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus, detail

Walker’s figures all symbolized different ideas around the transatlantic slave trade and violence. They also referenced an array of art-historical, literary, and cultural material.

Water and Sharks – References to Art History

I looked at a grand panorama of a whaling voyage and considered the Black Atlantic as its been represented in art by Turner, Homer, Copley and sailors themselves…my fountain yokes together racist representation and violent expression of power.

Kara Walker, in an interview with the Tate, 2019.

Kara Walker, Fons Americanus

Kara Walker Fons Americanus Winslow Homer - The Gulf Stream -

Kara Walker Fons Americanus John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark

Kara Walker Fons Americanus Joseph Mallord William Turner Slave Ship at Boston Museum

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