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Dominique White’s Haunting Artworks
Reclaimed … Dominique White photographed in front of Deadweight in production, 2024. Photograph: Zouhair Bellahmar

About 10 years ago, Dominique White distinctly remembers unravelling a length of twisted twine. As an artist struggling with finances, she needed more thread than she could afford. Unpicking a two-ply length of sisal rope resulted in double the length to work with, a deeply practical decision. She found that the unpicked twine resembled hair and the process of untwisting to be “very therapeutic; it switches off your brain.”

Alongside materials like rusting metals, soft white kaolin clay, charcoal, raffia, cowrie shells, and driftwood, deconstructed twine has become a defining feature of White’s sculptural practice. She constructs large pieces that bear the weight of the world yet remain delicately balanced. “There’s something so ghostly, almost, about the works,” she notes. This effect comes from using materials that resist solid forms.

This month, White opens a major solo show at Whitechapel Gallery in east London. Titled Deadweight, the centerpiece features four outsized structures created during a six-month residency in Italy, a result of her winning the 2023 Max Mara Art Prize for Women.

White constantly dips in and out of books for inspiration. “Deadweight was quite heavily influenced by a lot of theory I was reading at the time by anti-colonial academics Katherine McKittrick and Calvin Warren.” McKittrick’s work on the transatlantic slave trade highlights the concept of “deadweight tonnage” as a measure of a ship’s weight, including everything on board, even people deprived of their personhood by slavers. McKittrick uses the term as a conceptual tool to shift focus from the always-oppressed Black body toward something more radical.

White’s new pieces stand near ceiling height, reaching three to four meters, and evoke a state of decay. The creation process involved reweaving several thousand meters of rope and submerging giant metal ribs—resembling a boat carcass or whale—in the sea for weeks to observe the effects of saltwater on unyielding materials.

“I always want an element that’s larger than me, that I have to grapple with, like an unruly beast,” White explains. She doesn’t regard her creations as sculptures but refers to them as entities she brings to life. “They shed, they sometimes hum, it’s almost like they’re breathing.”

Detail of Deadweight in production 2024

Present throughout is iron engulfed with rust, which White submerged in the Mediterranean for a month. The Italian coastline evoked histories that became palpable; “In Genoa, you’re suddenly like: ‘Oh, wait, this is where Christopher Columbus comes from.’”

A fugitive you cannot find a record for is the most successful fugitive of all, 2021

Many of White’s larger works feature complex characters engaged in struggles, but sometimes a minor character of elegance emerges. “It doesn’t always have to be this extremely complicated, laborious manifestation. It can sometimes just be done with a seemingly simple kind of gesture.”

May you break free and outlive your enemy, 2021

White’s Hydra series uses the Greek mythological monster as a metaphor for Blackness, and for shipwrecked individuals, pirates, and runaway slaves. When Hercules attempts to sever its heads, more—depicted here by harpoons—grow in their place. “It’s a love letter to escaping and ending that battle.”

The Beaconing Soul/Bankrupt Utopia (for Pateh Sabally), 2017

White has explored the shipwreck motif for a decade, after learning about violent migrant deaths. “When you die and neither your birth state nor your adopted home wants you, where does your soul go?” These works serve as beacons for lost souls.

Max Mara Art Prize for Women: Dominique White – Deadweight is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, to 15 September.

Source: The Guardian