9 October 2021
This weekend marks the final days of Dominique White’s solo exhibition at UKS, Blackness in Democracy’s Graveyard. We had a chat with the artist about the exhibition and her artistic practice. The interview touches on storytelling, the serpentine monster Many-Headed Hydra, and self-woven fishing nets, amongst other things.
The exhibition is open 11am–4pm this Saturday and Sunday.
UKS: Congratulations on a well-received exhibition! How do you feel about the show now that it is in its final weekend?
DW: Thank you ever so much! It’s been quite surreal in this period where time feels especially fluid and rather fake. I feel rather humbled and proud that the show has been received so well, especially seeing as this is the first solo show that I have presented since the pandemic featuring new materials and forms. It honestly feels like a true achievement and I’m so thankful for everyone who helped and supported me along the way, as I’m not one to shy away from ambitious productions even when faced with uncertainty [surrounding Covid-19 restrictions]. I’m so glad to have finally produced some of these utterances in ways that I had never imagined – honestly, who would have thought I’d be soaking and bending mahogany for the first time in Lac Léman?
UKS: Your work is very narrative. How does storytelling play a role in your work?
DW: I see each work as a manifestation of a moment in transit, in limbo, of many stories that interweave with one another. The majority of the time I tend to refer to them as events or a collection of bodies in flux that we bear witness to in that very moment (and the context of time and space) in which they are shown. Each of these manifestations are an exorcism of thoughts and feelings, reflective of the current and murmurs of the future real conditional; “a performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must,” as feminist scholar Tina Campt writes in Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018). That’s also why I think that the instability of the materials is crucial for this form of storytelling: it acts as an unstable utterance of a warning of what is to come, or what is already happening.
UKS: Which stories are currently on your mind?
DW: There’s always a mix of stories that rotate and meld, both historical and contemporary, legendary and “fact.” I think of the myth of the Many-Headed Hydra a lot. That’s a story that feels more and more pertinent with time: a serpentine monster with six or nine regenerative heads that is eventually slain by Hercules through the severing of each head and the branding of each open wound with fire, which prevented its regeneration and eventual partial demise. For a while, I saw the current system as this monster that refused to die, with each regenerated head representing a progressive leap towards a nightmarish future. However, after reading a book with the same name as the serpentine monster, by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, I wondered whether Blackness could be represented by this beast; a beast who refuses to be a single being and, most importantly, refuses to ever truly die (in the myth, the final head is eternal and is simply trapped under a large rock between Lerna and Elaius).
I think of accounts of mutinies aboard ships in the Middle Passage where slaves succeeded in either piracy or in self-destruction. I think of the stories of the Nanny of the Maroons in Jamaica who caught bullets with her bare hands whilst she led the maroons to the mountains. I also escape into the writings of Joy James, Calvin Warren and Christina Sharpe and the visions of destructive liberation depicted through the music and visuals of Busta Rhymes, DJ Stingray, and Tygapaw.
I dream of stories that imagine what’s beyond the reformation of a system that inherently functions through our mutilation, oppression, and death. I dream of liberation by any means necessary.
UKS: That’s both beautiful and moving. In your work at UKS you’ve used materials such as raffia, kaolin clay, cowrie shells, and sails, amongst many others. How is emotion transferred into the material of the work?
DW: All of the materials come from symbolic references that have become deeply embedded into my practice and therefore aren’t so apparent on the surface. When I first started using kaolin in 2014, it was used alongside gold leaf as reference to rituals relating to preparing a body or a soul for the afterlife. Kaolin is a purifying material found in pretty much everything with a white pigment, from paint to paper to ceramics to skincare, where it acts as a detoxifying agent; something to rid the body of impurities. It’s a very unstable material that is water soluble, which for me acts as a direct metaphor for how I view Blackness: an intangible, fungible fugitive. I relish allowing these manifestations (in both the English and French meanings) this sense of autonomy, or this in between, and for a while I viewed them as captives in the midst of escape – escaping being submerged in the sea, where their forms will melt and be released into the water. I also see this splattering and crumbling as an escape (sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s rapid) into this space beyond the white cube, especially when exhibited in closed spaces, where the viewer treads in this matter, involuntarily spreading it beyond its container. The cowrie shells also derive from a similar reference: preparing the body and soul for the afterlife and ensuring that your loved one is as prepared as can be. It’s a practice in many cultures to bury your loved ones with cowrie shells, usually related to financial means, but I always see them as a protection for this journey into the other realm, into the spiritual realm – that references the Kalunga, which references the Stateless.
UKS: You’ve said that you’re often asked why you weave your own nets or source specific sail fabric. Can you say something about this?
DW: This is where the vulnerability and instability of the base of the work comes from. The thread used for the nets is from a twine that I laboriously unpick by hand and then reweave into extremely delicate nets, and in some of my older works the form is held in place by a single thread which sometimes holds 20 to 30 kilograms in weight. It’s hard to relate to this sentiment in documentation, but there is this heightened tension created in the space that forces the viewer to navigate in an extremely cautious way, knowing that one wrong move could potentially cause it all to come crashing down. I see the process of net-weaving in this precarious manner – where threads disintegrate as I spin the needle – as a process of mourning, akin to weaving incomplete nets, to gently guide those lost souls “home.” There is this spilling beyond the nets which signifies that the nets are more of an accomplice in gathering these lost souls and bodies, but this fracturing and multiplying is an indicator that this is not a singular form or being.
UKS: How do you think of your own role in the work’s lives or becoming?
DW: In the initial stages, I see myself as some sort of mediator. The process of negotiating with these materials perhaps isn’t so apparent in their current state, but it’s very much a ritual based on listening and understanding the limits of each thread and morsel of clay. Of course I sometimes ignore the warning signs, but I have a surprisingly heavy hand for such a delicate practice and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Once these forms are fabricated, I then see myself as a guardian, as some of these forms transform slightly with time as they are transported, handled, and installed. The work Ruttier for the Absent (2019) illustrates this best with its transformation from Curva Blue to Kevinspace and to Mo.Co in 2019/20, and I often wonder if and how they will continue to live without my presence. At the moment, many are too scared to navigate these forms without me present, as if they will awaken or disturb these souls if handled incorrectly. I think the notion of care is actually imperative to their afterlives, and there is always a request to treat them as more than or other than an art object, otherwise they will start their escape through entropy until there is nothing left.
Unsurprisingly, preservation is a topic that I discuss a lot and I find it somewhat disappointing that we appoint art works as “forever” objects, immortalized seemingly for eternity under sterile conditions as a means of suspending time in that particular moment. As a society, we are obsessed with suspending these moments and recording certain histories, but what happens if I want to disappear without a trace? With no remnants to discredit or re-tell? Is it because we are scared of what comes next? The unknown?
I’ll end with the words of the late Lee “Scratch” Perry: “the world is coming to an end and I’m not scared and I’m not afraid.”
 Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Verso Books, 2012.
Images: Dominique White, Blackness in Democracy’s Graveyard at UKS. Photos by Vegard Kleven