In contrast to modernity's fixation upon space exploration, nomadic artist Dominique White utilises bodies of water to explore the fluid and the uncategorisable messages it has the capacity to contain. In her latest installation May You Break Free and Outlive Your Enemy, now on view until March 19 at Madrid's La Casa Encendida, she repurposes shipwrecks and her knowledge of Black literary theorists in order to portray a relationship between the sea and the very nature of Blackness. It is not only through historical voyages, but the volatile, boundless nature of the sea itself that she explores the notion of afrofuturism and an inherent refusal to be captured.
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Pakui Hardware and Dominique White
First off, could you introduce yourself and a brief overview of your work to anybody that may be unfamiliar?
I’m Dominique White, I’m primarily a sculptor, quite a demanding sculptor at that! But I’m also an installation artist who makes works that revolve around the concept of the shipwreck, afrofuturism, afropessimism and the idea of hydrarchy from below. I work around the concept of dismantling the ship, dismantling the state, and I’m very into protest work – essentially reimagining the future.
Could you explain the meaning behind the title of your current installation at La Casa Encendida May You Break Free and Outlive Your Enemy?
Yes! So when I was producing this work back in 2021, I was reading, as a lot of my work is based upon theory books and the music that I listen to. This particular work was influenced by a book called Undrowned by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, which is basically a book in which she alludes Black Feminist Theory of marine animals and this notion of refusing to be categorised and refusing to be captured or hunted. Essentially there's this beautiful passage in which my work's title is paraphrased from in which she is writing a love letter to whales, who refused to be captured or categorised, shot by harpoons and refuse to die, and that's what really inspired me for the title of this show, the title of the work and the title of the show are essentially the same.
I understand that you lived in both Chios and Marseille during your time as an artist. How has your proximity to the sea during your residency in Chios and your move to Marseille affected your artistic perspective and process?
It has definitely enabled more first-hand research, and more experiences. When I was solely in London, I almost had to imagine the sea, and the Thames really isn’t a body of water to me, it’s more of a body of waste. Being in residency in different places around the world that are next to the sea means that I can retrieve materials first-hand, whereas when I was in London I would have to buy old sails online, but now I’m able to salvage these destroyed materials myself, and it also opens up possibilities for experimentation.
A lot of aspects of my work are extremely volatile, in relation to water, especially seawater, and I had this dream about actually sinking my work at sea, and it becomes a bit more tangible. It makes more sense to actually work next to the sea, whether it’s actually within the sea, or in close proximity to it.
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How does your Caribbean heritage influence your connection to the sea and your artistic practice?
Both sides of my family are Windrush, so this idea of travelling by water was essentially the main skeleton of my work when I was studying. This idea of home was at the very beginning of my practice ten or so years ago. My father's side of the family never returned to Jamaica, they have always remained in the United Kingdom. The first point of reference for this idea of the ship, which then mutated to include the migrant ship, but also most vessels that carry cargo. I tend to use the word hydrarchy in this respect, this kind of power on land has been created at sea through both trade routes and migration routes. I would say it also influenced my earlier work, as it alluded to an ambiguous Caribbean Island, not somewhere specific, but it framed a sort of othering environment that I wanted to build.
How did you come to invert the traditional interpretation of the Hydra as a symbol of disorder and resistance in your work?
I initially came to this story through the book The Many-Headed Hydra by Peter Linebaugh, in which the author uses this myth to position the Hydra as the nation-state, or as capitalism, and Hercules as a symbol of early pirates, or runaway slaves, basically anybody that tried to undermine the birth of capitalism in its early stages. I see the nation state as this many-headed beast, if you seek to change, or seek to cut the head off of the state, other heads will grow in its place. It mutates each generation, it's the idea that you will try and fight the beast but it will never really die, it shall continue its reign of terror.
You have had an interest in legends and oral tradition. How do you think this has shaped your understanding of maritime history and its relationship to power?
These legends and stories are uncontainable, at sea, you can’t draw boundaries or borders. It’s such a limitless entity and I see that as replicated through oral history. It’s a retelling of land. I see it as limitless, that is told through these myths and legends, it's a fluid way of depicting history, rather than the constrictions of being stated within books and conserved in a particular way. I feel like there are so many tales of resistance and protest at sea, whether it's through slavery, or more recently. It's the idea of breaking the rules essentially.
“I’m always convinced that scientists have discovered something terrifying in the sea, and that is why we try to colonise space, to run away from whatever's in the sea.”
Can you discuss the significance of collecting marine remnants, such as used sails, in your work and how it contributes to the overall meaning of the piece?
I tend to only work with the most destroyed versions of these items. I want them to carry their own life, so for example the sails are unsafe to use on vessels when I use them, whether they’ve been eaten by Sole, or just been destroyed by the wind, or misshapen by use, or bleached by the sun as they start to deteriorate. It’s the same instance with the rope, I pull it from wrecks, whether it be from docks or shipyards. It adds this sense of tension and fragility that becomes hyper-present alongside this shipwreck form that I create. I like things to be at the end of their life to have this volatility, everything is very volatile in my work, which gives its own sense of autonomy.
Can you speak about the use of your materials in your work and their relation to this sense of ‘destroying the hydrarchy’?
I like to work with very specific materials due to the symbolism that a lot of them hold. For example, iron has been a very important part of my work for the past few years, as it tends to be the only material that survives from the slave ship, the iron ballast in which we used was often used as a tell-tale sign that a wreck was a slave ship, as it was used to counteract the weight of the slaves. I started working with iron as an indicator of this timeless ship, that contained Blackness. I used kaolin because it is water soluble and volatile, a lot of people think that it would be plaster, but it means that as the work lives, people pick up this material on their shoes or on their bags, and it means it gets to live beyond what people would consider as the work. It becomes more and more explosive. Even the fact that I don't treat the iron, I leave it in its rawest form when it’s cast, it means that it starts to eat itself and changes within the conditions that it is kept in. I’d say these are the two most important materials involved when telling this story, and portraying the idea of not being confined.
How does this shipwreck imagery relate to the concept of Blackness as a fungible good?
I would say it’s not immediately clear what the shipwreck is. Because it is this mangled form, it could very easily shapeshift into different forms, but it also becomes present in my work when I use different materials, in the shape of where I would like to represent blackness. That’s why a lot of these clay structures are evidently formless, they don’t necessarily resemble a body. There’s this idea of breaking from specific categories or specific definitions.
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I’ve read that you’ve been studying a lot of cartography. How does this fascination with cartography and mapmaking influence your understanding of maritime history and the power dynamics between land and sea in your work?
The volatility that happens in cartography relates to a passage I saw in a book by Tiffany Lethabo King that struck me and influenced my interest in Cartography. The book is called Black Shoals and she talks about this map she found in the library of congress from the 1700s, and she said the way that the map had been folded, and displayed indigo farming and the roots of trade had portrayed the black figures in a way that had meant they had started to fade, and imprint themselves in places in which they couldn't have been, or shouldn’t have been. So there's this idea that even if you try to map out or create borders, accurately depicting seas or Blackness, there will always be a way to break free from the traditional record. It sounds contradictory, but I like the idea of volatile maps that don’t record anything accurately – you can’t accurately record the sea or water.
Can you discuss the symbolism and meaning behind the sea in your installation, do you think that it provides a more positive perspective of renewal and futurism? Or do you think its stronger symbolic connotations are of death?
I believe that the sea is always the strongest symbol, as I position this future of Blackness in the sea, because it is such an intangible entity, as we don’t know what the sea is capable of, or what possibilities lie within it. We don’t even know what’s living inside the sea. For example, I’m always convinced that scientists have discovered something terrifying in the sea, and that is why we try to colonise space, to run away from whatever's in the sea. I also see it as this limitless body.
There’s a passage in a book by Christina Sharpe, called In The Wake, in which she says that ninety per cent of matter in the sea is recycled, so when a whale dies, its body is immediately recycled back into the ecosystem of the sea, and into the chemicals that keep everything alive in the sea, so they never really die. I wouldn’t say that death is the main symbol of the work, as I feel like at sea, all senses of time and geography become void, they don’t matter.
Can you discuss the role of the viewer in the installation and the impact you want them to have on the work?
I would like them to understand that this is the most important thing in the room, and the viewer is forced into the margins of the room as a spectator, that they don’t actually have a role in the life of the work. That the work is autonomous and will decay by itself, it’ll maybe start to swing. I want them to be a spectator to an event that is happening very slowly. A lot of people like to spend a lot of time with the work, but some believe that it is too tense, or too destructive, and they immediately leave. I’m very open to how people interpret it and how people wish to spend time with it. One thing I would say is that it’s not made for a certain demographic, I like people to use this as a starting point to imagine their own futures and a new way of living.
It’s not all doom and gloom, I wouldn’t say it provides hope as I hate to use the word hope, but there's a glimmer of something else that we cannot understand, of what is outside and beyond this. I feel like we are so deeply ingrained in this world that we cannot imagine anything else or another way of existing.
Finally, do you have any upcoming exhibitions planned? Do you plan on continuing your work along the lines of a similar message? Or do you plan on taking things in an alternative direction?
There are many answers to this! This week I actually open a show with the city of Bologna, which will be in a sort of underground water reserve, I don’t think there’s an English word for it! But I’m showing an old work as a huge art intervention that is happening all over the city. I still have a show open at the Maxxi L’Aquila in Italy, which closes in mid-February. I’m in this state of limbo in terms of research, as I’m a finalist for the Max Mara Prize, I have to propose a body f new research, and what I’ve proposed is research surrounding this term ‘deadweight,’ a nautical term that is a unit of everything on the ship, including the ship, designating whether the ship will sink or float. Arguably, whether the state succeeds or fails, it's another way of creating a shipwreck, it's the starting point I have for that research. I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about anything further in my schedule! But later on, I’ll be opening a big institutional show. I don’t know if I'll be able to tell you when or where! But there are big institutional productions that I’ll be involved with soon.
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