Tribute to Queen Elizabeth II

Last weekend I changed my plans to go for a walk outside London and instead headed to Buckingham Palace to observe the mourning and tributes to the recently deceased Queen Elizabeth II (1926 to 2022).

I came out of Charing Cross tube and walked across Trafalgar Square and along the Mall only to find the area around St James’s Palace fenced off and filled with a crowd liberally sprinkled with what looked like mostly foreign TV presenters talking earnestly into cameras on tripods. According to a security guard I got chatting to, the crowd was there because there were rumours that a car might or might not enter or exit St James’s Palace and might or might not contain a Royal of some degree. Last Saturday we knew Charles and Camilla were at Balmoral so it was puzzling that a crowd of two or 300 had gathered on such a remote offchance.

There may well be a madness of crowds (I think of Ian Gilmour’s enjoyable book, ‘Riots, Rising And Revolution: Governance and Violence in Eighteenth Century England’, and all the decisive journées of the French Revolution). But the hysterical outbreaks of mob violence maybe have a kind of milder cousin – the curiosity of crowds. A couple of people stop to look at something happening in a shop window. A few more join in to see what they’re looking at. A crowd gathers. People on the edge of the crowd have no idea what they’re doing, but it’s something to do / something must be going on / they were curious to see what was happening.

People at the floral tributes to the Queen in Green Park, London

Anyway, the short cut through to the Mall was closed so I was forced to walk up St James’s Street to Piccadilly and then along the frontage of the Ritz to the tube station entrance to Green Park. There was a big crowd and entrance and exit to the tube barriers were separated by a crash barrier. I asked the security guy nicely and he let me slip through and 30 seconds later I was amid the crowds walking up from the tube station into Green Park.

It wasn’t football crowd density but it was very packed. I noticed the number of people carrying bouquets, hundreds of people. Almost immediately I heard one of many crowd stewards yelling through a megaphone that both the Mall and Constitution Hill were fenced off with crash barriers and so inaccessible. I went up to speak to her. I like chatting to officials. I was friendly and sympathetic but she didn’t need much provocation let out a string of complaints about the crowds who were all heading gently downhill through the park bearing their bouquets intending to put them against the railings of Buckingham Palace as per tributes to Princess Diana (1997) and the Queen Mother (2002). Then they discovered the Mall was completely locked off by crash barriers, turned around and began drifting back up the hill, bumping into the continuing crowds heading down, creating an entertaining mix of confusion.

A fallen tree festooned with floral tributes to Queen Elizabeth

The steward was trying to tell everyone there was no way through to the Palace to lay tributes against the fence and to direct everyone with flowers towards a special Floral Tribute Area half way down the gently grassy slope. So I headed in that direction and discovered quite a long queue because the Tribute Area, also, had (relatively simple) crash barriers around it, enclosing an area smaller than a football pitch and roughly almond shape. People were waiting patiently in line bearing their bouquets, mainly families with young children or older couples. Not many teenagers, some Asians, amid the crowds I saw one young black woman.

A hand-written acrostic tribute to the Queen

Once inside what immediately became clear was the utterly amateur nature of nearly all the tributes. People had written them themselves in a wide variety of styles, some with stylish scripts, some on banner shaped long placards, but more on humble sheets of A4 paper. A huge number were obviously from children, most as individuals but some obviously organised by teachers and signed off as coming from class so and so at such and such primary school. Looked like many infant and junior school teachers had incorporated the activity into the curriculum.

Thank you note to the Queen

It wasn’t the flowers, it was the sincerity of so many of these hand-written tributes which, after a while, began to move me. It was the feeling of a huge love, a nationwide feeling of love and emotion uniting so many people, so many millions of strangers from all round the country brought together by strong emotion, sorrow and respect.

Row of floral tributes to the Queen

Many of the flowers had been arranged in long narrow rows or banks and the sheer volume of bouquets, notes and gifts laid out like this was very moving. But I was struck by the way some people had also been festooning trees, laying bouquets against their trunks and attaching notes to their branches.

This struck me as unusual, not in the English tradition. The accidental presence of a Japanese woman in this photo made me wonder what countries it comes from. Is it English? I don’t know enough to decide, but I love trees, we need trees so there was a kind of respect for nature or involving nature in the mourning process which I liked. And also the idea of the tributes hanging in the air, easier to read but somehow closer to the sky, more airborne. Lots of ideas and images and symbols.

A tree in Green Park decorated at the roots with bouquets with numerous written tributes attached to branches

Written tributes everywhere but also…a surprising number of cuddly toys. There were two types: Corgi dolls and Paddington dolls; when I say dolls I mean more like bears, the kind of toy bears my children had when they were small, fake fur and cuddly.

Toy corgi among tributes to the Queen

In an as yet relatively untouched area of grass I came across a bloke and his family creating an installation. They’d already used stems from bouquets to spell out ER with some ribbons between the letters to make a heart shape. Now the bloke and his 2 junior school kids were gathering brown leaves to make a frame, to turn it into a picture or a 3D card. A bit overwhelmed by the atmosphere of love and friendliness and openness, I went up and asked him if I could help. ‘Join in, mate,’ he said, so I spent the next few minutes grabbing handfuls of brown fallen leaves off the grass and adding them to the frame.

Ad hoc tribute made of leaves

While I was helping, a small crowd gathered and the bloke addressed them suggesting they write a big THANK YOU with leaves. I didn’t want to get too involved, I knew I’d start to take it over and direct things; I very much wanted to only make a fleeting contribution and move on, leaving space for others.

But it set me thinking about all the installation art I’ve seen in the last 40 years, much of it accompanied by high minded statements from the artist or the curators talking about installing art in places where it can be enjoyed by ‘the people’ or about removing the barrier between art and ‘the people’, and so on. Well, here was a bloke and his family spontaneously creating something lovely, full of love and respect, and just one of thousands writing messages, doing drawings, hanging notes in trees, arranging their bouquets just so. I’m not saying it was ‘art’, as such, but it felt like it came from the same urge to create and beautify and say something, that art comes from.

Monarchy and republicanism

I’m not that interested in the arguments for or against the monarchy. When I went to university I discovered that 100% of the really vehement republicans I met had been to public school and that put me off republicanism in the same way that a lot of public school socialists put me off the Labour Party. It doesn’t strike me as being a ‘national debate’ but a squabble among the ruling class, between Rupert who attended Eton and the Guards, and his wildcat sister Polly who became a webel at university.

At university many a public school liberal told me how we will only get equality in this country when we abolish the monarchy because it stands at the apex of the entire system of privilege, power and money. Sometimes I’d reply that it would be easier to scrap public schools and thus hamper the perpetuation of an elite of boys and girls who have been bought privileged life chances and, very often, entrées to positions of power, by their parents’ and grandparents’ money.

But the reality is that neither of these things will happen. No political party seriously intends to abolish private schools which are, in my opinion, the single most important means by which the ruling class of Britain not only preserves itself, but is flexible enough to incorporate a steady flow of new money and new talent into its ranks. If you can afford it, you’re in (to the schools, and then to the ruling elite across numerous industries and institutions).

But back to the monarchy, and opinion polls suggest support for abolishing the monarchy and creating a republic fluctuates between 15% and 25% of the adult population. Call it 20%. Therefore any political party which puts republicanism in its manifesto automatically alienates 70 to 80% of the electorate, which is why even Jeremy Corbyn, the most ‘radical’ leader of the Labour party in a generation, realised it was not a battle worth fighting. If he wouldn’t take it on, no politician will take it on.

The argument that the monarchy stands at the apex of the system of privilege and inequality which holds Britain back, prevents the UK from fully modernising, has a number of counter-arguments:

1. America is a republic, has been since its inception. Would you say America is a paragon of fairness and equality? No. It appears to become more unequal and fractured with every year. How about republican France, dominated by a technocratic elite? Or Italy, just welcoming a semi-fascistic party into power. Or Russia? Simply being a republic doesn’t guarantee fairness and equality, far from it. Lots of other political and social elements are needed, too.

2. If we get rid of a monarchy we would almost certainly create a head of state, usually a president, to replace it. You only have to say the name Donald Trump to realise that having a president, elected by universal suffrage, does not solve your problem. If we did create a republic and have an elected head of state, what’s the betting the first one would be Boris Johnson who, despite all his lies, corruption and incompetence, remains surprisingly popular? You only have to consider the existence of President trump and President Putin or the possibility of President Johnson, to realise that straight constitutional swap for republicanism might be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.

3. Conversely, it is proveable that nominally monarchical states can demonstrate a high degree of fairness, equality and progressive values. Left Liberals generally praise the equality and liberal values of the Scandinavian societies, Denmark, Sweden and Norway – yet all three are monarchies.

In other words, being a monarchy doesn’t prevent the development of a liberal egalitarian society (Scandinavia) while overthrowing a monarchy and instituting a republic does not guarantee equality and fairness (America, France).

There’s the economic argument: republicans argue that the monarchy costs the country a fortune, that the monarch owns a grotesque amount of land and assets which could be redistributed to help the poor, and so on. Monarchists tend to emphasise the earnings the monarchy brings in through tourism and the export of prestige brands with the royal seal of approval etc around the world.

There’s a politico-psychological argument: republicans argue that the existence of monarchy keeps Britain in arrested development and infantilises citizens who compete for a shake of the royal hand or the soft feel of the sword on their shoulder as they’re knighted. Conversely, monarchists point to the enormous achievements of schemes set up and sponsored by the Royals, including the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and the Princes Trust, which have done more than any government ‘Back to Work’ scheme to help the poor, the working class, the young. Republicans may concede their effectiveness but say the same kind of thing could perfectly well be run by an elected government, but could it? The actual governments we’ve had in recent times, the governments of Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss?

Monarch or no monarch, Britain would still be lumbered with the blinkered, ideologically driven, heartless and incompetent politicians we always seem to end up with.

Rebalancing the British economy

In any case, the real economic and social problems facing this country eclipse squabbling about the head of state. I am strongly influenced by Correlli Barnett’s two histories of wartime and post-war Britain:

These analyse the deep structural issue in the British economy, namely that we built towns and cities around the industries of the industrial revolution which have now disappeared. Towns and cities built around coal mining, shipbuilding, steel or car manufacturing, have all lost their raison d’etres. If you add in the fishing ports all up the east coast of England you arrive at a list of the Red Wall constituencies which have suffered terrible decline over the past 50 years, where high unemployment sits alongside poor educational achievement.

At the moment the British economy is underpinned by the cash cow of the City of London, engaged in money laundering for the Russian mafia, casino gambling on products it barely understands (see the 2008 financial crash), a nexus for the international insurance industry. All this is a result of the historical ‘accident’ of Britain building a worldwide empire and adapting more flexible and innovative financial systems than its rivals (France or Holland). However this is a fading asset. Brexit is just the latest blow which will encourage some of these financial services to relocate away from London.

So my belief is that the real challenge facing the country is to do with rebalancing the economy in such a way as to bring worthwhile jobs to those northern and eastern towns and cities, to create new industries which provide employment and give a sense of worth and dignity in people’s lives. Maybe some of this would come in the form of a renewables industry, green industries, with factories creating wind turbines, solar panels, home insulation products, carefully located in those towns. Maybe a focus on computer skills required in the 21st century digital economy by setting up centres of digital education, training and excellence in the north.

I’m no expert but it’s clear that what the country needs is an intelligent long-term plan to transform the lives and futures of its people. At the moment we have a government which combines fine talk of levelling up with no actual, tangible plans for how to achieve it, while on the ground most people are experiencing a series of crises which seem to make life relentlessly harder and harder, with the prospect ahead that things are only going to get worse, a lot worse.

You can see why people, ordinary people, living out there in Hartlepool and Ipswich and Devizes, far from the highfalutin’ intellectual arguments of the London commentariat, really need something to believe in. You can see how the Queen, quietly going about her duties with unhesitating commitment and optimism, gave many people an often forgotten, but always present, underpinning of continuity and hope, confidence that things would be alright if she was there.

Her death represents or symbolises many things, to many people, as I saw in Green Park. But for some I think it’s one more nail driven into the coffin, one more element contributing to a sense of national decline and the collapse of old certainties.

Likely prognosis

In reality, nothing will change because nothing in this country ever does. At least that’s how it often feels. Republicans hope that Charles will so miserably fail to fill his mother’s shoes that their cause will gain strength. It’s possible, but I doubt it. To even begin to get the republican ball rolling you’d have to persuade the crowds I saw in Green Park and all the adults and children who have written tributes to the Queen that they are wrong, that it is emotionally immature and politically backward to care so much for a monarch. That doesn’t seem very likely.

British Republicans can make all the logical arguments they like – but you can’t disprove love, the love I saw pouring over Green Park, and that’s what they’d have to do.

Punk queen

After a surprisingly emotional morning, I walked to the west end of Green Park and then undertook the long polluted trek along Grosvenor Place, at the rear of Buckingham Palace, down towards Victoria. South of Buckingham Palace is a warren of streets, many of them with large imposing modern buildings, many of them housing government departments. I used to work in one, the Department for International Development which the Conservatives, as they always do, have now merged with the Foreign Office. Like all big modern buildings these have service bays, scrappy concrete yards where lorries can deliver essential goods.

In a concrete cul-de-sac formed by steps up from such a bay (you can see cabling coming out of the wall at the bottom left of this photo, and general litter on the floor) someone had gone to a lot of trouble to create the following massive spray-painting-cum-collage of the Queen.

This too is a tribute, a backhanded testament to the extraordinary achievement of Queen Elizabeth, the solid, reliable, good humoured, long serving, loyal, loving and patriotic backdrop to the lives of everyone who’s lived in this country for the past 70 years. Even our rebellion was coloured by her.

Collage graffiti on a concrete wall near Buckingham Palace

Kara Walker @ Tate Modern

Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in California in 1969. She is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. I have previously come across her work in:

1. The big exhibition of prints held at the British Museum in 2017, where I wrote:

In this room the standout artist for me was Kara Walker, with her stylised black-and-white silhouettes of figures from the ante-bellum Deep South. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But her style is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

2. The other place I’d come across Walker is in the huge book, Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012) where Chadwick writes:

  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

So I was familiar with Walker’s crisp, black silhouettes, and the way that, despite their often emotive titles the actual illustrations are often more teasing, strange and fantastical than the apparent straightforward obsession with slavery would suggest.

Slavery! Slavery! by Kara Walker (1997) Installation at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Kara Walker and the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument

So when Tate announced that this year’s annual commission would be given to Walker, anyone familiar with her work will have expected it to touch on the issue of slavery – and she didn’t disappoint. She has created a huge sculpture which parodies the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument outside Buckingham Palace.

To understand how Walker has parodied the original, let’s take a moment to refresh our memories.

The Queen Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace, London

The Victoria monument is 25 metres high and contains 2,300 tonnes of white Carrara marble. As well as a solid, matronly Queen Victoria seated holding the orb and sceptre, the memorial also carries statues representing courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood. The central monument, created between 1906 and 1924, is by Sir Thomas Brock, but the whole design, including the nearby Memorial Gardens, was conceived by Sir Aston Webb and the Memorial was formally unveiled by King George V in 1911.

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

Walker decided that, in London, home of the slave trade for so many centuries, and a city stuffed to the gills with very white marble statues of and monuments to very white imperial heroes, it would be an interesting gesture to create a memorial, on a similarly imposing scale, to all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

The result is Fons Americanus (Latin for American fountain), an enormous monument made up of various human statues and a water feature spouting water into a set of concentric pools at its base, also filled with miscellaneous statues of people and a surprising number of sharks.

Installation view of Fons Americanus by Kara Walker (2019)

Walker replaces the smooth Victorian allegorical figures of the original with crudely carved cartoon figures representing archetypes from the slave trade, topped off with a staggering female figure spouting water from her breasts (and also from a nasty gash in her neck).

Each of these figures has a symbolic meaning and, although it’s not immediately obvious, most of them actually reference works of art from the British tradition, nineteenth century paintings of rafts and slaves and so on. There’s a full list of the different figures and explanations on the Tate website:

Broadly speaking, Walker replaces the British or imperial icons, depicted in the smooth neo-classical style of the original monument, with figures from various aspects of the slave trade – a weeping boy, a native woman instead of smug Queen Vic, a generic sea captain, a kneeling praying man in chains, and a tree with a noose dangling from it to represent the countless Africans who were hunted down, tortured, lynched and hanged.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood


First thoughts

1. Scale

The most obvious thing about filing the Turbine Hall is that your work must be big, and Fons Americanus is big alright. You can view it from the ground floor walkway but it’s worth going down to the lower level to walk around it and really get a sense of its hugeness. It towers over the mere mortals at its feet.

2. Aesthetics

All the Tate labels and webpages emphasise that the point of Fons Americanus is to subvert and parody the smooth surfaces of traditional monuments, as those monuments in their turn smooth over and gloss over the violence, and horror and exploitation which lay at the basis of the British Empire.

And that this explains why the surfaces of all the figures have been left deliberately pockmarked and rough to the touch. And, in the same spirit, explains why the human figures aren’t perfectly proportioned human figures based on the ancient Greek ideals of standardised beauty; instead they are deliberately rough and crude, because life is crude and real people are rough.

I understand the intention. I understand all that. But it’s still ugly. It’s still hard not to be repelled by the crudeness and ugliness of the figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Maybe she’s intending to give repellent content a repellent appearance, I understand the intention. But it’s notable how drastically Fons Americanus with its lunking crudity is unlike the silhouettes which brought her to fame. The silhouettes were notable for their style and grace and elegance of design.

I can’t help thinking that anyone familiar with the imaginative world of her silhouette works will be surprised and pretty disappointed by the blunt crudity of this enormous object.

3. Irony

There is a sort of politico-aesthetic irony here: I have read here and about other exhibitions, that Walker and many other BAME artists and writers are protesting against the white canons and the white rules of beauty which have dominated European and American art and media for so long. My impression is that for the past fifty years or more a lot of black artists and writers and film-makers have been campaigning to have black beauty, black pride, black appearance, black hair and black faces incorporated into much more diverse and inclusive notions of ‘beauty’.

OK, I understand the aim.

But there’s a kind of irony here that Walker seems to be playing to the crudest of racist stereotypes and clichés by making her black people so insistently and defiantly brutish and ugly, unfinished, rough and repellent. Maybe we are intended to overcome our repulsion from these crudely drawn figures and make the imaginative effort to sympathise for any human in dire need, no matter how crude and ungainly and clumpishly they’re depicted? Maybe the aesthetic clumsiness is part of a kind of moral test?

4. Patronising

But the biggest problem with this installation is the wall labels, the press release and all the relevant pages on the Tate website.

They all seem to assume that we’ve never heard of the Atlantic slave trade – that the existence of slavery 200 years ago will come as a massive surprise to Tate gallery visitors – and that the work will shine a dazzling new light on a previously unknown subject, confronting ‘a history often misremembered in Britain’ as the wall label puts it.

Misremembered by whom exactly? By art gallery visitors? Probably the most bien-pensant, liberal cohort of people you could assemble anywhere.

The notion that the slave trade is an obscure historical event which needs more publicising struck me as an extraordinary claim, especially since I went to see this sculpture during the 32nd Black History Month.

Had none of the previous 31 Black History Months mentioned slavery? Have no books been written on the subject, or TV documentaries made, or articles written or exhibitions about it held anywhere else? That assumption, which is taken as the premise of all the curator commentary, seemed astonishingly patronising, to me.

In fact I gave up reading the Tate web-page about the installation when I came to the sentence carefully explaining that London was ‘the capital of the British Empire’… OK. It was at that point that I realised the entire commentary was either for schoolchildren, or for people who have little or no knowledge about Britain or British history. But are these the kinds of people you are liable to meet at Tate Modern or Tate Britain?

In fact the type of person you meet most at Tate Modern are tourists. Every time I go, I end up helping some hapless foreigners find their way about, or explain the escalators and lifts, or the layout of two buildings to them (yesterday I had to explain to a family of Italians in the lift with me that they were going to the correct floor but in the wrong building).

Almost all the voices I heard as I walked round the installation were foreign: I particularly remember a French family who were posing their little kids for charming tourist pics on the edge of Fons Americanus‘s the pool, and plenty of other family groups were posing and taking family snaps around it, just as they do by the fountains in Trafalgar Square or at any number of other great big imposing public monuments in London.

What does its radical deconstruction of the tradition of neo-classical, British imperial monumentalising mean to them, I wonder?

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Ben Fisher

5. Artists and history

History, as a professional activity, is about the careful sifting of evidence. Historians undergo an extensive training in the use of archives and other sources, and ways of judging and assessing documents, speeches, books and so on.

Historians can obviously still be terribly biased, or commissioned by the state to write propaganda, and completely ‘objective’ history is probably impossible – but nonetheless the notion of objective history is still an ideal worth preserving and striving for, and most historians generally adhere to professional standards of presenting and interpreting evidence, which is or should be made available for others to sift and assess in their turn.

And hence the intellectual discipline of History – which amounts to an endless debate about all aspects of the past backed up by evidence.

Compare and contrast this meticulous approach with the worldview of artists, who are free to make great sweeping generalisations about life and art and society and capitalism and God and anything else they feel like, with little or no comeback, with no requirement for proof or evidence.

This is fine if they want to make provocative works out of industrial junk or surrealist paintings. But if they take it upon themselves to create works designed to be a complete reinterpretation of history over a period of hundreds of years – and if their new interpretation of history is going to be taught to schoolchildren and explained to school groups – then they assume a certain amount of responsibility.

In other words, to put it really bluntly – you shouldn’t rely on artists to teach you anything about history. You should rely on historians. That’s why they’re called historians. It is because they are lifelong specialists in an area of intellectual enquiry which is defined by rules, best practice, and policed by a community of peers, in academic journals and so on.

That’s Argument Number One against artists teaching history.

Argument Two concerns the idea of respecting the complexity of human history.

In my opinion, good history should try above all to capture the complexity of human motives and experiences. It’s a mistake not to take account of the extent to which people of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated and capable of contradictory feelings, beliefs and actions, as we are today. They were people like us, not one-dimensional caricatures.

In order to create the space to let your imagination and empathy work, in order to fully enter into the spirit of another time and try to understand the people who lived in it and the multiple pressures and compulsions they lived under – we should not rush to judgement. As the American historian David Silbey writes in his incisive account of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against Western imperialist forces in China:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

The kind of history I like is continually upsetting my expectations, presenting me with counter-intuitive ideas, making me stop and think and really reconsider my existing beliefs. Thus the book about Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, which I read recently, overturned my ideas about all sorts of aspects of the past, made me view lots of general trends and specific areas of history (such, for example, as the importance of the imperial conquests of Russia) in a completely new light.

My view is that Walker’s version of history doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know – that you weren’t taught at school and haven’t had reinforced by countless books, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles and Hollywood movies about slavery – and by thirty-two Black History Months with their annual outpouring of exhibitions, articles and documentaries.

Instead of making you really stop and think, of prompting unexpected insights and new ways of seeing, for me, at any rate, Fons Americanus seems to set out to confirm all your prejudices and stereotypes –

  • to confirm your impression that all blacks in all of history were helpless victims of the slave trade
  • to confirm the stereotype that all white masters were racist sadists
  • to erase the fact that the slaves were sold to the traders by Africans who made a fortune by enslaving their fellow blacks
  • to erase the hundreds of thousands who worked or bought their way out of slavery, set up businesses or had lives as fulfilling as plenty of the miserably poor whites (and other ethnic groups) they lived among
  • to erase the role of Britain and the Royal Navy in abolishing slavery and then policing the world’s oceans to try and prevent it. As James Walvin points out in his history of slavery, ‘Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.’ Somehow, I don’t think we’re going much about these positive achievements in the deluge of wokeness coming our way.

In other words, I feel nervous about the reduction of an immense and extraordinarily complicated history of the multifarious experiences of tens of millions of people over several hundred years down to half a dozen, crudely-drawn, Simpsonsesque cartoon figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Fons Americanus is big. It’s very big. American big. Like a skyscraper or a Big Mac.

But I recoiled from it a) aesthetically – it is crude and ugly and repellent, and b) intellectually – it is crude and patronising and dangerously simplistic.

Second Thoughts

To be honest, a lot of my negative response was triggered by Tate’s wall labels and by the Tate web-pages about Fons Americanus and the slave trade – commentary and labels which I found worryingly simple-minded, and single-minded: simplifying an enormous, complex, multifarious epoch of history down into a handful of slogans and images, and into a new, and worryingly simple-minded, orthodoxy.

My argument was, to a large extent, with the written interpretation of the work.

But there’s a different and much more obvious approach to the commission and presence of Fons Americanus here in Tate Modern, which is to ask: among all the hundreds of memorials and monuments and statues to countless white men and generals and politicians, most of whom served under the British Empire in one shape or another and which litter London’s public spaces: should there be a memorial to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade?

To which the answer is almost certainly an emphatic YES, Yes, there should be.

In which case the follow-up questions are:

  1. Should it be this one?
  2. and, Where should it go?

Where would you put it?


The Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern and global warming

Every year Tate commissions a contemporary artist to fill the vast space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The funding comes from Hyundai.

Hyundai is a South Korean multinational automotive manufacturer headquartered in Seoul. It manufactures nearly 5 million automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles each year. If green activists have woken up to the fact that many art exhibitions are sponsored by oil companies, and violently object to their contribution to global warming, indeed have gone to the trouble of pouring oil at the front of the National Portrait Gallery which each year hosts the BP Portrait Awards… how long before the penny drops that oil is only actually a pollutant when it is burned to produce CO2 and a host of toxic poisonous chemicals hazardous to human life and all other life forms?

In other words, I wonder for how much longer a company which manufactures toxic, air-polluting ‘automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles’ will be allowed to sponsor works of art and installations like this?


Related links

Other posts about slavery / American history

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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