Essays: “On Kara Walker’s ​Fons Americanus” by Mimi Tempestt (Part 1)

“Did you know that you can’t kill any of the swans?” Ronny said. Alexis and I thought this was a weird fact to proclaim as we made our way through St. James’ Park. The swans, viciously beautiful and unperturbed by the presence of so many people, were the last thing on our minds. With proper courtesy, I entertained Ronny: “Aw, man! Why can’t we kill the swans, Ronny?” 

“Because the Queen owns every swan in the UK.” 

The idea of one person owning every single bird of a specific species within any territory was wild to me, but I was far from home, and racing against the rain as we made our way to Buckingham Palace. The palace entrance is like going to a Beyoncé concert. You are there to witness all its glory, but any aspirations to embody its true essence and grandiosity is futile. A simple picture on Instagram capturing that you were near royalty has to suffice. Alexis, my homegirl from East Los Angeles, and I were just happy to be there. As a pair of brown and black femmes, always trying to escape the intensity of life and grad-school, we managed to make it out of the hood for at least one Christmas. Three years earlier, we were snorting lines of coke in the bathroom at Akbar in Silverlake on Christmas Eve, and now we were masquerading as Kate Moss and Adwoa Aboah through Camden Town and Hackney. 

What you don’t learn about Buckingham Palace in the United States is that the memorial of Queen Victoria sits stoically in front of it. I’ve watched all four seasons of ​The Crown​ on Netflix, and not once is the statue filmed or mentioned. As I walked towards it, my head cocked all the way back to observe the monolith and mythology embodying this piece. Victoria, an ugly white woman with androgynous features emanated immense power and protection on a wall of granite stone. She’s protected by angels decorated as Roman soldiers, and above her statue is the golden grandeur, Nike, the Roman goddess of Victory. 

Initially, I couldn’t put my finger on why this display of blatant hubris unsettled me. I looked on it for about 20 minutes, and all I could express to Alexis was “This is…a bit much.” I knew I was a traveler in an antique, yet well-preserved, land. We left with our phones full, and in a hurry to escape the rain. The next day was the first museum visit of what would become a two week circuit of seeing as many works by “The Masters” as we could. 

Upon entering the Tate Modern, the immensity of the building is felt. Its architectural structure feels like something out of a pseudo present-future. We walked in, ready for it’s enchantment, and the first noticeable item was a large sculpture of a pearl shell. I noticed that children readily flocked to it. It looked like a set piece for​ The Little Mermaid, but as I got closer, the reveal was shocking. At the center of the shell was a pearl: the head of black boy child, with water circulating through his eyes. His facial expression, although a little muted, was definitely sad. He peered at us in agonizing pain, and I observed how readily children wanted to come and reach inside the shell towards his head. I overheard one white woman silently battle with her son (he seemed about 5 years old) to keep his hands to himself. There was a greediness in his eyes to reach inside, make claim of the space by attempting to climb the shell’s walls and peer further into the waters that dripped limply from the decapitated head’s eyes. Alexis waited until the mother grabbed her son away to get her picture taken. She smiled widely in front of the sculpture, and afterwards moved so that I could take mine. I quietly declined and suggested we move onward. 

About 20 feet forward at the base of Turbine Hall the big reveal was situated for us to experience: Forty or fifty feet tall, the large rebuttal to the Queen Victoria memorial, a fountain of “fuck you” to colonial and imperialistic values. The mythic mammy atop a fountain of woes; a remembering of the harsh Middle Passage through abject ferocity. She looked as if she was drowning, but her hands were graceful— very swan-like. Water spewed from her neck and breasts, and as I digested the intensity of the accompanying images, I noticed that the water leaking from her could have easily been milk, blood or honey— maybe even tea. Below her, a stout British-looking soldier, and to her right a trunk of a tree with a distinct noose, to her left stood a hottentot goddess with a man kneeling in front of her pussy, and below were the sharks and a body snorkeling amongst them. At the base of the sculpture, was a man in peril sitting lonely in his boat. On the side of his vehicle of descent, a very distinct etching of the name “K. West.” Throughout the base there were dismembered agonizing faces, tragic scenes, and sharks. Definitely more sharks. How this sculpture pokes fun at the memorial and itself is interesting. The absurdist reality of the history it hints to. I still wasn’t aware of who created this until looking at the written piece that accompanied it. Upon reading “That Celebrated Negress of the New World,” I put all the pieces together in my mind. 

I had seen Kara Walker’s work before. I experienced her shadow paper cut-outs, depicting the violence of chattel slavery at The Broad in Los Angeles. I had even read about “A Subtlety,” the installation of a black woman, another mammy mirage, depicted as the Sphinx. An installation made mostly of sugar cane. I appreciate that the ‘Fons Americanus’ was created within a similar vein of those other works; a monumental kin traversing and communicating from across the pond. 

Once again, I witnessed the flood of white bodies taking their seats amongst the base of the fountain. This was completely permissible, but the irony of seeing them selfie their faces amongst so much heavily depicted black death is what I found amusing. It was an installation that influenced performance art. A performance of readily-made consumption and an unobserved gumption to place their bodies amongst symbols that historically positioned them as privileged within this mythic reality. I’m not above or dismissed from this reality, but this is an observation that I made while engaging with this piece. To witness the ignorance and dismissal of the white gaze as the artist is addressing the historical trauma of said gaze is what fascinated me. How easy it is to forget about the torrential waters of the middle passage as it stares in artful form at you. How easy it is to forget the stolen lives and histories on westward ships to make profit for the crown that still preserves its mythology to this day. How easy it is to dismiss the eddies that swallowed Black women and their babies whole or the sharks that devoured Black bodies as if simple chum. How easy it is to place their white bodies in conjunction with the traumatic narrative of this installation, however comical and dissimilar it presents itself to be. At the National Portrait Gallery or even the Tate Britain, they would never get too close to a white artists’ installation. The monument of Victoria, although open to the public, stands too tall as a leviathan of its own making for anyone to even get close. 

Walker’s work shed it’s light on the anomalous fact of white european and American sovereignty. That it isn’t a god-given right of passage, but instead, a myth that relies on the self-inducing amnesia of its rulers, and its subsidiaries who have benefited monetarily and socially from these histories and structures of Black oppression for hundreds of years. My experience with the ‘Fons Americanus’ became an unveiling of low expectations as I witnessed other works in different museums throughout London and Paris. I got the sense that this was the blackest, most womanist and relatable work I was going to experience on my entire trip. A week later, I drunkenly scoffed while staring at Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ at The Louvre. Soon after while at The Palace of Versailles, I found myself grimacing at the engorgement of war portraits: white man after white man after white man on white horses over mountains of dead bodies. And all the gold, everywhere at each art museum— I have seen better presentations of gold at the Slauson Swap Meet. The saga continued: We saw Van Gough, Da Vinci, Monet, Picasso, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Renoir, Raphael, and many other dead irrelevant white imaginings.

And everywhere I turned, Walker’s work burrowed its message of Black erasure and false Black piety through the myth of white grandiosity and superiority in my mind. That day was a gift. A beautiful hint of a fuller history. The Tate Modern was filled with subtle and pleasant surprises. Alexis and I spent that day meandering through each exhibit. From different perspectives throughout the building, both high and low, the ‘Fons Americanus’ made its point. It was a subtle reminder that followed me for weeks around Europe— 

**Part 2 of Tempestt’s essay will be published in Issue 2.

About Mimi Tempestt

Mimi Tempestt (she/they) is a multidisciplinary artist, poet, and daughter of California. She has a MA in Literature from Mills College, and is currently a doctoral student in the Creative/Critical PhD in Literature at UC Santa Cruz. Her debut collection of poems, the monumental misrememberings, is published with Co-Conspirator Press. She was chosen for Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices for poetry in 2021, and is currently a creative fellow at The Ruby in San Francisco. Her works can be found in Foglifter, Luna Luna Magazine, Chaparral Press, and Reclamation Magazine.