London’s streets are haunted by vile ghosts. Everywhere you walk, there are statues of Britons who conquered the world and pillaged its nations looming over you. And in front of Buckingham Palace stands the Victoria Memorial, an ornate, lavish celebration of Queen Vic and her imperial achievements.
Now a version of it haunts the Turbine Hall. But American artist Kara Walker’s bubbling fountain isn’t a celebration of the British Empire, it’s a vicious, angry, fearsome attack on it.
Walker has previous. Her career has seen her tackle the legacy of the slave trade for decades, using film, puppetry and installation. But this is her first stab at Britain, and the knife’s going deep.
The enormous fountain is covered in crudely carved figures. Sharks leap out of the water, a man lies in a sinking boat, a prone body is pulled from the waves. On the tier above the water sits a ship’s captain, and a noose hangs from a tree. At the very top stands a black Venus spurting water from her breasts, with a mouth like a magical black goddess. It’s full of references to art history – Goya, Hirst, Turner – and nods to Britain.
The whole thing is an allegory for the Atlantic as a site of black tragedy, of forcible removal, of death and pain. Though it’s a little rough, a little rushed, it still hits you pretty hard. Walker is using the fountain to highlight the links between Africa, Europe and America, to show how connected we are through a shared past of pain and exploitation. In its heady mul