Kara Walker: Fons Americanus review – monumental rebuke to the evils of empire

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Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London
The American’s bold subversion of exultant Victorian kitsch charms even as it cuts to the quick of slavery and refuge denied

The American artist Kara Walker brings a bold, poetic energy to the clunky art-garage of the Turbine Hall for the annual Hyundai-sponsored installation. She presents just two pieces: a towering, faux-Victorian fountain and a smaller sculpture shaped like an oyster. Both are immediately charming, yet they tell a sorrowful story about slavery, colonisation and “merchant trade” (to use a euphemism that Henry Tate’s sugar company might itself have preferred).

The elegant tiers, sweeping ovals and prettily pattering water of the huge fountain make for a fine pastiche of Victorian memorials. Public monuments were built by the victors of history to celebrate their feats, legitimise their abuses, exult in their spoils and anchor their power. Walker’s monumental rebuke rises up palely: white supremacy built on black degradation. She makes visible the black women, children and men who were exploited and erased, and does so in a sardonic reclamation of the perpetrators’ own visual language.

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