A Giant Fountain On The Horrors Of Colonialism Lands In The Tate Modern

Kara Walker, Tate Modern ★★★★★

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 27 months ago

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A Giant Fountain On The Horrors Of Colonialism Lands In The Tate Modern Kara Walker, Tate Modern 5
A close up detail of the fountain. © Tate photography (Matt Greenwood)

London has plenty of public fountains. They’re usually some aesthetically pleasing design, easy on the eye, featuring the likes of dolphins, created to pretty up some public square.

Artist Kara Walker turns that notion on its head at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall by installing a 13 metre tall fountain that confronts us with the harsh reality of the violence of colonialism and imperialism.

The fountain dominating the Turbine Hall. © Tate photography (Matt Greenwood)

A dead body is pulled out of the water, sharks leap out menacingly and ships that were used by slavers all feature in this ‘allegorical wonder’. The sign next to the work uses devilish humour in co-opting the language of carnivals to advertise it:

Come One and All, to Marvel and Contemplate The Monumental Misrememberings Of Colonial Exploits Yon

The top of the fountain is crowned by a naked black priestess in what appears to be death throes with fountains of water shooting out of her breasts and a slashed throat. Kara Walker, rightfully, doesn't hold back, signing off the fountain as being 'A Gift and Talisman [to the Old World] ... Created by that Celebrated Negress of the New World'.

A boy drowns in his own tears in a smaller works that's also in the Turbine Hall. © Tate photography (Matt Greenwood)

This work is inspired by the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace, which is a celebratory monument to a Queen who oversaw an era of colonialism. This fountain at Tate is the opposite — a critique of all the exploitation and violence that colonialism brought to the world. It’s a part of history that wasn’t being taught at schools for decades and is only now starting to be addressed in the public eye.

Tate Modern is, after all, named after a man who made his name in sugar. While there is no evidence that Henry Tate ever owned slaves, he did gain his wealth from an industry that was built on the backs of slave labour.

This fantastic work by Kara Walker is a powerful reminder of the legacy of colonialism, it’s importantly placed somewhere thousands of people will walk past it every day and appropriately timed to open at the beginning of Black History Month. It’s the type of political art we need to see more of as museums continue to struggle to draw in persons of colour to visit.

Hyundai Commission: Kara Walker — Fons Americanus is on at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall from 2 October - 8 November 2020. Entrance is free.

Last Updated 30 June 2020