A gigantic, and I mean, monumentally gigantic, fountain currently fills the main hall of the Tate Modern, and is accidentally far more topical than it had expected to be
Commissioned when Black Lives Matter was a fringe organisation, slavery was mainly a matter of historical study, and George Floyd was still alive – this sculpture by Kara Walker forces people to challenge their understanding of the slave trade.
It’s a deliberate mirror image of the monumental fountains and sculptures built to glorify Empire and Conquest, based often on subjugating, and selling the natives in the newly conquered nations.
The choice of a fountain was deliberate, as the water is said to signify the Atlantic waters that formed the triangle of slavery. The fountain does candidly make it a more interesting object to look at unlike had it been an inanimate statue. It’s both to be seen and to be heard.
You can stand back and admire the whole, but closer up, the carving seems almost deliberately crude, as if to mirror the curvacious perfection of Imperial stonework.
But there’s meaning here, enough to fill an essay or three in an art studies class.
There’s dark humour amongst the allegories.
There are allusions to Damien Hirst’s sharks in the ponds, Turner’s 1840 painting, Slave Ship, a biy crying replaces the traditional image of Venus in a shell, while Venus is transformed into an African-American priestess gushing water from her breasts, and a gash on her neck.
The sea captain is a composite, the noose is loaded with meaning.
Whether the fountain would have caused people to question the UK’s legacy of slavery in public art is unknown, but thanks to the events earlier this year, it has gained a more important presence, reminding us how those old town square statues came to be.