With all the talk of immigration in political debate as an abstract numbers game, it’s easy to lose sight of the experience of being an immigrant; what it feels like to give up one’s home for the uncertainty and loss of identity in a new world. Far from the simple process of moving from one place to another, immigration is a harrowing, life-altering experience.
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, himself an immigrant from China to the West, tackles the global immigration crisis in the moving documentary “Human Flow,” currently playing at Atlanta’s Landmark Theatres Midtown Art Cinema, which delves into the trauma, anxiety, frustration and fear that accompanies Syrian or African or Mexican immigrants as they make their way to a new, safer place than the one they left. And closer to home, Atlanta-based and Jamaican-born artist Cosmo Whyte, plumbs the melancholy and rueful side of finding your place as a stranger in a strange new land.
Whyte’s solo show “Starting a Bush Fire” at Marcia Wood Gallery features a collection of sculpture, installation, photographs and drawings that Whyte says “reference the ruptures and varying degrees of displacement inherent in migration.” Like so many other Americans, Whyte is defined by his status as a psychological resident of two worlds, a kind of melancholy limbo he treats in much of the work in “Starting a Bush Fire.”
In his most common medium, drawing in charcoal on paper, Whyte is a virtuoso. His moody, affecting drawings are chimerical and seem to melt and morph before your eyes like a body disappearing into quicksand. In fact, disappearance and loss of self are recurring ideas in this show, whose imagery often focuses on people whose identity is in flux and indistinct. Isolated on a large mass of white paper, Whyte’s figures rendered in velvety strokes of charcoal and often accented with swaths of gold leaf dissolve into a puddle or seem to turn away so quickly their features are lost in a blur.
In “Vessel 2,” a male figure lies on his back, his head and limbs emerging from a kind of pool, his body assuming the shape of a bowl. The mood is restful, even meditative, but underpinned with trauma. The contortion of his body is troubling, suggesting supplication and physical stress.
In Whyte’s drawings, portions of faces are cut away, or so blurred that eyes and ears and other features blend into one distorted mass. Migration, whether voluntary or the involuntary movement of slaves in American history, gives this work a powerful feeling of trauma. For Whyte, migration is “an unfinished arc of motion. Its final resting point remains an open-ended question” as he puts it in notes accompanying the exhibition.
Whyte supplements his evocative drawings with sculptural works that amplify a sense of disquiet and difficulty already well established in “Starting a Bush Fire.” In “Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner,” a life vest is encrusted with mussel shells, suggesting the tenacity with which one’s previous life and experiences cling to the present. In the equally revealing, emotionally resonant “Carry On,’” a row of generic airplane seats assume the identities of their occupants. Gold fringe hangs from the seats, which have been upholstered in a cheerful, flowery chintz with doilies decorating their headrests, as if the comforts of home have been brought along on the journey.
But despite the effort to carry along a sense of comfort and familiarity, all is not well. A mass of smashed china at the base of the seats attests to a turbulent, difficult passage.
“Cosmo Whyte: Starting a Bush Fire”
Through Nov. 25. Noon-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Free. Marcia Wood Gallery, 263 Walker St., Atlanta. 404-827-0030, www.marciawoodgallery.com.
Bottom line: Extraordinary work that tackles the contortions and anxieties of migration.
IN OTHER NEWS:
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.