How do we enter a conversation on the intersections of migrant identity? For artist Cosmo Whyte, the way in is sensory and experiential. Whyte, who was born in Jamaica, has made a home for himself in Atlanta as a practicing artist and art professor at Morehouse College. His practice tackles questions and conflicts that arise for those who live between worlds while playing with the unstable concepts of home, nation and power.
Beneath Its Tongue, the Fish Rolls the Hook to Sharpen Its Cadence (at MOCA GA through January 11) is a benchmark exhibition for the 37-year-old Whyte. It fully expresses his concepts through a successful multimedia and multisensory exhibition. He combines the drawings and sculpture we expect from him within an innovative installation. We see the breadth of his practice and a tease of what’s to come. Whyte uses sight, sound and touch to connect to his viewers, displaying an amazing array of skill and craft across mediums with art he created and through collaborative art-making.
Viewers enter the exhibition through The Fire Next Time, an archival image of a South London riot in 1981. The image fills a beaded curtain that’s hung across the entrance, created by Whyte and the collaborative art platform HEKLER. You must pull back the strings and feel the weight of the tense and violent image to get it. The beads brush against your body as you pass, distorting the image and muddying its legibility. This piece is immersive and physical, and its symbolism is rich.
Whyte forces viewers to participate in the multilayered conversation he creates as he comments on a collective knowledge/memory that has been fought for and negotiated. The riot image, in its beautiful gray hues, is generic enough to interpret several ways. The image could easily be from the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963, Los Angeles’ Watts riots in 1965 or the antipolice unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
The work causes a historical event that happened thousands of miles away, in a country foreign to our own, to become personal and weaken the boundaries between us.
Beneath Its Tongue is the third and final exhibition from MOCA GA’s 2018–19 Working Artist Project (the others featured Krista Clark and Myra Greene). The project supports midcareer and established Atlanta artists with a $15,000 grant, a $1,000 credit from Binders Art Supply, a paid studio apprentice, a solo exhibition, inclusion of one new work in the MOCA GA permanent collection and production of an accompanying full-color exhibition catalog.
Beneath Its Tongue is small, with just eight works. But when you consider the layers of meaning in each piece, eight is just enough. Whyte creates works that take effort to unpack. Though there are universal symbols and signifiers in each, there are also specific cultural references that will be recognized, misinterpreted or lost on the viewer. This doesn’t concern Whyte. Instead, he leans into the multifaceted qualities of art to mean different things to different people.
Some may use his race or nationality as an excuse not to unpack their relationship to certain images. Regardless of which end of the hook they may find themselves on, all viewers can see some of themselves in the pieces if they do the work.
The most engaging work for the senses here is Salted Fish and Gold. A piece of Norwegian cod has been preserved in salt and decorated with gold jewelry and mapping pins. It’s mounted on a dark blue wall; the crystalized salt and gold pins glint in contrast to the smooth paint behind them. The work is pungent, and its smell is as arresting as its beauty. Viewers are forced to smell the fish to inspect the beautiful detailing of gold pins along its scales and the custom gold coins that hang from its chain.
What for some might be a contrast between visual pleasure and aromatic displeasure will evoke feelings of home and pride for others. Ackee and saltfish is Jamaica’s national dish. Whyte intertwines its complex past and references the international exchange that led to its association with Jamaica.
A search for gold encouraged Europeans to colonize the Americas, and preserved Norwegian cod was a cost-effective way to feed the enslaved and indentured labor used in the search. The work plays on the tensions of this history and expresses that concepts like home and pride come with negotiation. Though the search for gold has shifted to contemporary materials of value, the echoes of that search continue to form our interconnected American identities.
Beneath Its Tongue, the Fish Rolls the Hook to Sharpen Its Cadence is an exemplary display of interdisciplinary art-making and a sharp interrogation of identities that transcend national borders. The exhibition title speaks specifically to the power dynamics of the hunter and the hunted, the powerful and the seemingly powerless. Even to use the loaded term “riot” when describing the London unrest will read differently to people of color, the poor, the queer and the marginalized. What this inadvertently creates is an interrogation of the viewer’s position within conversations on race, gender, nationality, colonialism and, ultimately, power.