On Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus: A Black Femme Perspective on European Art

“Did you know that you can’t kill any of the swans?” Ronny exclaimed. Alexis and I looked at Ronny with confusion, it 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 that clouded our minds, but with proper courtesy, I entertained Ronny with a follow-up question: “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 attempting to race against the rain as we made our way to the gates of Buckingham Palace. The palace entrance is astounding. Being in front of its gates 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. Ronny, Alexis’ cousin, who was gracious enough to offer his home for our holiday, was an excellent and fun host. His invitation was a golden ticket for our free-spirited wayward personalities. We are a pair of femmes, brown and Black, always trying to escape the intensity of life and grad-school, who managed to make it out of the hood for at least one Christmas. Three years before, 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. Life takes you on many levels, and Alexis and I are always open to the possibilities. 

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 watched all three seasons of The Crown on Netflix, and not once is the statue filmed or mentioned. As I walked towards it, I remember my head cocking all the way back to observe the monolith and mythology embodying this piece. Victoria, an ugly white woman with androgynous features, but clearly emulated as a symbol of immense power and protection, sits sternly 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 and other adventures were to ensue. We left with our phones full, and in a hurry to escape the rain. The next day was our first art museum visit of what would become a two-week circuit of seeing as many works by “The Masters” as we could. It was Christmas Eve, and our choices were between the Tate Modern and the Tate Britain. The Modern was our bet, and what was unearthed in me set the standard for the rest of my trip in Europe. 

Upon entering the Tate Modern, the immensity of the building is felt. Its architectural structure feels like something out of the movie Her by Spike Jonze, and although I felt like I was in a pseudo-present-future, I didn’t mind how aloof the building presented itself to be. 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, nothing too irreverent, but as I got closer, the reveal was shockingly subtle. At the center of the shell was a pearl: the head of a 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 to keep his hands to himself. He seemed about 5 years old, but 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. 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 is where the big reveal was situated for us to experience. There stood, estimating about 40 – 50 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 both her breasts, and as I digested the intensity of the accompanying images, I couldn’t help but think that the water leaking from her could have easily been milk, blood, or honey — maybe even tea. Below her sat a stout British-looking soldier, to her right was a trunk of a tree with a very distinct (almost loud) noose, to her left stood a Hottentot goddess with a man kneeling (or stealing) 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. 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.

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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 white gaze is what fascinated me. My interaction with the piece, from the perspective of being both Black and femme, became an unveiling of low expectations as I witnessed other works in different museums throughout London and Paris. It was a subtle reminder that followed me for weeks around Europe — this was the blackest, most womanist, and relatable work I was going to experience on my entire trip. 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.  

A week later, I was drunk at The Louvre doing my best impersonation of Beyoncé. I was rapping “Apeshit” loudly from room to room in the sea of white people. So drunk off French wine that I unreservedly scoffed at the Mona Lisa while waiting in line to get closer to her wondrous and mystical beauty. At this point in the trip, Alexis and I, respectfully and amicably, were seeing through different lenses. For me, every art museum we visited was just an ensemble of dead white men swinging their dicks in our faces. For Alexis, the art fulfilled a nostalgic memory of seeing in real-life what her younger self only witnessed in textbooks. A day prior, we willed our way to the Palace of Versailles. It’s the former home of Marie Antoinette, another remembering regarding the subject of decapitated heads. We whisked through every room, one more frou-frou and ridiculous than the other. I focused in on the engorgement of portraits: white man after white man after white man on white horses over mountains of dead bodies in battle. That was the final straw for me. And all the gold everywhere — I have seen better presentations of gold at the Slauson Swap Meet. Throughout Paris, we witnessed Van Gough, Da Vinci, Monet, Picasso, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Renoir, Raphael, and many other dead irrelevant white imaginings. The ‘Fons Americanus’ had deepened my pre-existing indifferent perspective on white art. It seared into my memory that whiteness, like the memorial of Queen Victoria, is a fallacy of mythic constructions turned into violent realities and histories.

After the New Year, we returned to London for our last leg of the trip. I left Paris more content about eating a croissant than seeing a sketching of a ballerina done by Degas. At Tate Britain, there were more fallacies on the walls: religious ones, historical ones, naked ones, nature ones. The fallacies of “The Masters” are putrid. By the end of our travels, I would sit in one room while Alexis wandered around and about. I was more apt to people-watch than observe the art. It was at the National Portrait Gallery, our last day of visiting art museums, where I witnessed my second favorite piece. This wasn’t mounted for display on any walls, but happened in real-time: A simple kiss between an older Black woman walking about the room with her baby girl. This was exciting for several reasons, one reason being that the likeliness of seeing another Black person in these spaces is rare, and another reason being that witnessing the interaction of love between them transcended all the racism and erasure that hung aggressively on the walls. It was a sublime experience, one that seemed orchestrated by the universe to remind me that survival and love of kin is what supersedes the harshness of my Black reality. Which is another feat I believe the ‘Fons Americanus’ conquers. 

During the final dinner on the final night, we met a few of Ronny’s church friends; which consisted of a hilarious and smart Jamaican gentleman named Richard who boasted that he could drink Alexis and I under the table. Wielding a “bullshit” his way, we took to the bottle and like perfect British drunkards began talking politics, racism, class, and life with an unblemished fervor. I was eager to swap stories and compare how Black people experience racism in the UK to how it’s experienced in America. Richard didn’t hold the punches. He was witty and became more uncouth with his words as the whiskey poured heavily through us. He was brutally honest about his hardships of emigrating from Jamaica to the UK nearly 20 years prior. He wasn’t too fond of hanging out with white people unless he was getting paid, and he was proud that his wife helped him become a good man. His life story was interesting, complex, and beautiful.

Towards the end of the night, Richard revealed that he hated the Queen, thought Prince Andrew was a “pedophilic cunt”, and described all the ways the British tabloids, with the aid of the Royal Family, slandered Meghan Markle to distract the public from Andrew’s connections with Jeffrey Epstein. In the thickness of his Jamaican-British accent and with his index finger waving above his head, he drunkenly sputtered to me: 

“Mimi, I wouldn’t be surprised if she decided to leave this shit. All this shit!” 

I really didn’t care to consider the possibility. Megan Markle isn’t an emblem of any blackness or womanness that I readily feel connected to, but after hearing how even she, a Duchess who is complicit and in the comforts of high white society, was a victim (in some form or fashion) to upholding their fallacies, I took her bourgeois struggle into consideration. I, at the very least, thought Richard made an interesting prediction. I took another swig of my whiskey and responded, “And if she can leave, good for her.”

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Mimi Tempestt

Mimi Tempestt is a multidisciplinary artist and poet. She has a MA in Literature from Mills College, and is an incoming PhD student in the Critical/Creative PhD in Literature at UC Santa Cruz. Her debut collection of poems, The Monumental Misrememberings, is forthcoming with Co-Conspirator Press. She was chosen for Lambda Literary Writer's Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices for poetry in 2021, and is currently a creative fellow at The Ruby in San Francisco.

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