For sculpture and large-scale installation artist Dominique White, inspiration invariably starts with the nautical. Everything from found sails and masts to whaling spears and maps informs White's work, which, to little surprise, revolves around the concept of 'the ship'; an object she believes, 'is actually at the very core of our society'.
White is now off to Italy for a six-month bespoke residency as part of winning the Max Mara Women's Art Prize, announced in a special celebration at Whitechapel Gallery earlier this week. Her trip, specifically tailored to fit, inform and develop White's work and process, will subsequently culminate in a major solo exhibition held in 2024 at the East London-based art institution, eventually touring to Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia, Italy. Speaking with the artist ahead of her Italian venture, I asked White what she was most looking forward to. Her answer? A relatively simple one that carries meaning and intention: 'A bit of breathing space. It's going to be such a relief to work at a slower, more purposeful pace for a while.'
Despite the Women's Art Prize being in its 9th edition (the biannual award was launched in 2005), this year's line-up reached a joyous step forward for POC women artists around the globe, with each of the five nominees all being Women of colour. However, it must be said that despite this incredible step forward for artists everywhere, it's an act that was - to state the obvious - long overdue.
Up against four other nominees, Rebecca Bellantoni, Bhajan Hunjan, Onyeka Igwe and Zinzi Minott, it was White that stood out to the judges for her proposal for a new body of work titled Deadweight - a reference to a term used by the maritime industry calculating how many units of weight a ship can take before sinking - that swayed the judges. The planned proposal will hopefully see White build (and then sink) her own boat-like structure in the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the west coast of Italy, all before bringing it back to the Whitechapel Gallery for the touring exhibition, which will reference Mediterranean slavery and maritime history.
Although the act of sinking her work before reviving it is new, embedding her work with the very nature of decay and decomposition isn't. Just like everything else in her work, which often nods to Afro-pessimism, accelerationism and hydrarchy – (the latter being a term coined by 17th-century poet Richard Braithwait, referring to the ability for individuals to gain power over land by ruling through the instrument of water), the materials used purposefully imbue her work with deeper meaning. 'The basis of many of the forms consists of meticulously picked apart sisal rope that is then rewoven by my hand into extremely fragile nets along with shredded raffia which are then both doused in kaolin clay cast forms', White tells me. The process of how these works form is as important as the end, decaying result. 'There is an incredible amount of tension held in this amalgamation of materials - there is a sense that something might snap, crumble, dissolve or even escape. They evoke a refusal to be contained or captured.'
Ghostly and fragile, yet extraordinarily physical, White's own zeal for recalling sea-buried worlds through sculpture imposes a salient meaning that otherwise wouldn't be there, acting as beacons bringing back the Black status into view. Noting the sea as 'an intangible body, an unknown entity and possible site of indefinite futures and worlds' allows White to take from multiple Black theories to inform her developing perspective and narrative. 'It (the ship) created the beast known as hydra(rchy). So wrecking the ship is an analogy for anarchy, abolition and destruction', White informs - all notions which strongly link to colonialism, making the ship as a metaphor the perfect unsung analogy for her work. 'Without the ship, we would have no nation-state, no capitalism, no constructs of anything as we know it really', which, for these very reasons, is why White is so enthralled by its existence, past and future. 'It is the site of an alternative afro-futurism; of an aquatic afro-futurism that does not seek to replicate the rules of the land, in the same way, that the colonisation of Outer Space does'.
Based between Marseille in France and Essex in the UK, duality is essential for White to find harmony in her work. Prior to interviewing the artist, I'd read that when she lived in London, her materials weren't as genuine when compared to living by sea. Asking if the process in which scouring for these materials alters the trajectory of her point of view, White eagerly reaffirmed, 'Oh yes, there's so much richness from sourcing the sails and rope directly from the coastline or the sea. Finding these materials at their source - whether that be digging directly in the sand or clambering between rocks - means these objects are loaded with so many histories that are then embedded into my practice. There is something incredibly special about repurposing an object that has been battered by the sea into what I do - it's as if I'm charging the works with even more lost ghosts or voices.'
It's this very notion of repurposing materials and building with history that is entrenched into White's work, leading the artist to see herself as 'more of a mediator of materials' than 'a creator', with 'every aspect teased to its limits to create harmony with one another', adds White. 'There's a lot of ripping, stretching, cutting, cracking and fracturing that occurs in the studio; the outcome is a product of a very intensive and sometimes dangerous labour that is placed in a contemporary branch of auto-destructivism. It's very much a destructive process with a poetic afterlife that forces an element of care in its ongoing life as it doesn't sit conventionally in the world of art conservation.'
From the beginning, White made it clear that 'the central enquiry of my work is about imagining a Black Future that does not rely on the very narrow current interpretations of the future', one that is sure to be oppressive, acting as another way to impose a voice onto those who have been voiceless for so much of history. For as long as there isn't one voice, White refuses to accept one future. By using found materials to reconstruct ship-like objects and sculptures that hint at shipwrecks from the past, the artist is piecing together her story, her future; a repurposing act in itself that's won the support of Max Mara and Whitechapel Gallery.