Multidisciplinary artist Cosmo Whyte presented informative research that articulated interweaving roles migration and colonialism play into the raw poignancy and visceral complexity of his narrative work. Hailing from St. Andrew, Jamaica and working primarily in Atlanta, Georgia, Whyte’s trials and tribulations of United States naturalization filter through creative processes of sculptural installations/objects, drawing, performance, and photography with influences ranging from historical context to popular culture.
Whyte, a Hudgens Prize Finalist as well as grant recipient of Artadia and CUE Foundation, has conducted extensive field research, traveling to Ghana, London, and back home to Jamaica (with fresh eyes), collecting valid principles that inform his intriguing concepts. Using generational occupancy of space as metaphor, he focuses on how things easily and quickly slip into other spaces, ideas of transcendence, having diasphoric moments in negative space, meditative, trans space, referencing “ubiquitous” objects such as doilies marking value and worth.
In Promis(ed) Land (Version #3), a Jamaican travel drum explores a connection to “home” and ties to Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line, a short lived shipping corporation. In Whyte’s creation, a “kitschy tarp with neon signs,” has a musical component that sounds similar to church hymn hums or melodic rhythm of slave shack escapism. The music is actually a part of The Jeffersons theme song (DuBois’s Movin’ On Up), distorting the lyrics “finally got a piece of the pie.”
His drawings also frame varied influences. Carnival in Atlanta, a summer jump off event that has been in existence since 1988, celebrates Caribbean culture and heritage with parades, costumes, music, food, etc. Specific messages that were once lost are retained in small communities, performative rituals disclosed in drawings. Simultaneously, violence comes crashing, with continuous acquitted verdicts of murdered black lives, unfiltered and unjust, slithering around an artist’s vulnerable state of mind. While seeing a Chris Ofili retrospective, Whyte found a connection to tie into his work, sorting emotional turmoil through drawings of Carnival, contorting bodies like gymnastics filtered through colonialism diagrams that overlap, create growing pains.
The Harder They Come, a 1972 crime/drama film exploring Jamaican folklore set in Kingston, Jamaica, enters Whyte’s works as well.
Most importantly, Whyte integrates autobiographical narrative and inherited generational tragedies. In Nkisi, one of several documented C-print photographs of a performance piece, after the death of his father, he wears his father’s ties as a sculptural armature over a suit and communes with a clear, abyssal body of water as a tribunal act, a reference to African traditions of communicating with ancestors via heirlooms.
Furthermore, in Headboy and Cold Sweat, Whyte reacts to Jamaica declaring independence and at the same time, keeping the English schoolboy uniform intact. He dons the red Royal British waistcoat and trousers, sits in a hot classroom for hours, sweating, reenacting moment of hyper awareness. After walking downtown, perspiring in these clothes, he dove in Montego Bay, saturating sweaty uniform fully under water, submerging and floating with composition intending to capture colors of Pan African Flag. Heartbreakingly, is that historically in that water, ancestors had traveled in tight, inhumane vessels, some drowning intentionally, others murdered, their bones, bodies, and spirits way below Whyte’s reach. Yet the connection is clear. He swam in an opened grave. And there are not enough tombstones in the world to commemorate countless unnamed deaths.
In closing, Whyte has captured significant, past moments, laying groundwork for monumental shifts to occur in a diverse practice that promises further emergence, utilizing encounter as a way of thinking about race relations in the United States versus predominantly black spaces in the world.