Crossing Cultures presents the first of a series of works funded by the Curriculum Advisors initiative by the CLT at the University of Brighton. Four students have been developing work to assist with decolonising the curriculum, in order diversify and enhancing the student experience.
REWRITING THE UNWRITTEN + WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
by Kirsty Atek
“Take a picture of me there,” she said, handing me her phone. My friend wanted a picture next to the grand sculpture standing tall and proud in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. However, six o’clock was fast approaching, which meant the gallery was closing soon. As we paced towards the sculpture, we were met by a security guard who assured us that this photo would not be happening, and to make our way to the exit. Trudging in defeat, she sighed. “Maybe next time. I think it’s here until September.”
The sculpture she was talking about was Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus: a large, hand-sculpted fountain created as part of Tate’s annual Hyundai commission. At the top stood a graceful figure with her arms held out delicately and streams of water jetting out from the neck and nipples. As your gaze descends, you see lively characters placed in tiers, performing activities separately from each other. It seemed like a very glamorous piece that made the hall feel a bit lighter – because, of course, I didn’t actually know what it was about. I could blame it on the supporting text not being immediately in my eye range, however it would be more accurate to blame my lack of effort to turn my head and find it.
Fons Americanus addresses the history of violence and dehumanisation towards black people throughout history, specifically black Africans and the diaspora. The piece was inspired by the Victoria Statue that sits in front of Buckingham Palace and was unveiled in 1911 in honour of Queen Victoria. Rather than erecting a monument celebrating the British Empire’s victory, Kara Walker’s sculpture questions the Empire’s role in the slave trade and forces the public to deal with uncomfortable truths such as Britain being a large beneficiary of slavery. Walker substitutes the angels of victory and justice for caricatures of drowning slaves and imagery of a noose hanging from a tree to completely reshape the way people respond to monuments. There’s an irony in how large sculptures become invisible over time as they blend into part of the background; but why does it matter how we interact with them?
On our way towards the exit, I caught sight of a smaller piece: a large shell a bit further in front of the fountain. Deeming it good enough to receive my compliments, I turned to my friend and made a passing comment about its beauty – but were I to really look at it, I would have seen the clay face of a weeping boy at the bottom of the shell, eyes ablaze and desperate for connection with mine. Walker’s Shell Grotto voices the trauma experienced by the many men, women and children who were taken from their homes on the West African coast to the New World (America) and asks us to rethink the way we remember these individuals, because that’s what history is: how we remember and how we are remembered. If we all continued to blissfully ignore these important stories expressed through art, then all the people from these marginalised groups are rendered unheard despite the voice they’ve been given. Art can be a binder between generations, genders and races as it helps us all understand each other a little bit better – but we cannot do this if our stories are not being told by us.
However, there are some monuments that need to be challenged. For the longest time, there has been a very singular narrative in history around black Africans and their experiences, and it is usually one that has been crafted by European travellers. In 1561, John Locke (a merchant from London) wrote of his travels to West Africa, calling the natives “beasts with no houses” and “without heads”. These grossly racist documents were the validation many needed in order to continue seeing black people as inferior and this narrative continued for centuries – even after the abolishment of slavery in 1865. Fast forward to the 21st century, racial discrimination is still prominent and statues glorifying
colonisers and unjust wars remain. As viewers, we must grow a consciousness towards these monuments and what they represent in order to stop this oppressive cycle.
Looking back, I wonder if Kara Walker deliberately made Fons Americanus in the style of a national artifact to call out our growing indifference to these landmarks. What I do know, is that now is the time to become more attentive towards what we are taught.
- Fons Americanus: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/kara-walker-2674/kara-walkers-fons-americanus
- (Regaining consciousness towards well known landmarks) The Statue of Liberty: https://www.nps.gov/stli/learn/historyculture/stories.htm
- (British Empire’s history of colonising and warped retelling) Portillo’s Empire Journey, S1 EP3: South Africa: https://www.my5.tv/portillo-s-empire-journey/season-1/episode-3-a45c77cc-0ab4-497b-94d8-b8bbab86f6e6
- (Encouraging black artists to be apart of the change in design) Broken Nature – Symposium no.2, DORI TUNSTALL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Kj9_qOQrmk
Kirsty Atek is a BA (Hons) Illustration student, Visual Communication, School of Art.
This video is a short documentation of a first year project ‘Still Here’: an exhibition looking at space and what it means to belong’.
Contributors to the video include: Teyah Davis, Israela Dembele, Marshall Hill, James Kakenyera and Martina Katumba.