Jade Irvine reflects on African American artist Kara Walker’s use of scale - from intimate to monumental - and her consideration of the histories that are memorialised and those that remain obscured.
In 2020 approximately one year after its completion, Kara Walker’s colossal monument to the transatlantic slave trade - the Fons Americanus was destroyed. The working fountain stood at 13-metres tall, and was made from easily recyclable materials. In envisioning the final resting place of her work, Walker expressed, “I would hope some aspect of it would have another life. It has all the possibilities for living beyond its present [form].”
Six connected works by Walker have since been given another life and exhibited at the National Gallery, including the Fountain with Venus series of five drawings, and an accompanying Fons Americanus bronze maquette.
These works highlight the subjectivity present in Walker’s counter-monument, and the temporal disjuncture that emerges through viewing them. Created on an intimate scale, what does it mean for these artworks to speak to a monument that no longer exists?
The Tate Fountain with Venus drawings provide insight into Walker’s initial planning of her monument, appearing as beautifully rendered and highly engaged works. Narrative is an essential force in Walker’s work and demonstrated throughout the series, with her characters physically harmed by the sea passage she depicts. It is through these works that Walker begins to work through these monumental histories of racism, empire and diaspora. The inscription ‘Albion and Europa’, written across one of the drawings, is indicative of the cultural references Walker accesses when constructing her narrative.
In turn, through this piecing together of cultural material, the artist’s hand feels present in these works. Walker’s role in the making process is clearly demonstrated in the drawings, which include the use of collage. One of the works features photographic images of the exquisite clay model sculptures Walker created when developing figures for her Fons Americanus artwork. This sense of touch and evidence of Walker’s markings are further demonstrated in Walker’s accompanying maquette. This provides a tactile and physical anchoring for Walker’s absent monument, although on a much more intimate scale.
As Walker has stated,
“when you have monuments or commemorative things that just simply exist, they sit there and they disappear.”
Walker’s work prompts us to consider the histories that are memorialised, and the certain stories that remain obscured. This provides interesting considerations when being viewed in Australia’s own national gallery, in a country with its own history of colonial conquest and racism. Through engaging with the past in Walker’s project, there is the potential for new meanings to be carried through these residual forms. After all, how could we possibly hold a monument still? How do we deal with history, when its reading is always in flux?
While Walker’s 13-metres tall monument no longer exists, her archive provides us new opportunities and another way into history - by thinking about subjectivity, expression, and the stories we choose to memorialise.