Photo taken by Dakota O’Brien
By Dakota O’brien
The Met Breur, located on Madison Avenue and dedicated to showcasing the work of contemporary artists, is now host to a new exhibition – Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture, 1963- 2017. The renowned artist Jack Whitten, best known for his abstract paintings, has now been given a posthumous opportunity to fill the third floor of the Met Breur with his unique sculptures.
The walls, filled with texturized pieces that walk a thin line between painting and sculpture, radiate the artist’s Southern African-American routes, as well as his time in New York and the Greek island of Crete. Themes such as place, memory, family, power, roots and migration, are manifes in over 40 sculptures made of carved wood (often black mulberry), combined with found materials such as shells, pebbles, and Styrofoam, as well as more personal additions like family photographs and even the artist’s own American Express credit card.
The exhibition pays special attention to Whitten’s acknowledgement of his black identity, featuring sculptures created by enslaved African Americans in the 1840’s, as well as pieces by unknown artists from African nations such as Nigeria and Ghana. These sculptures served as both context and inspiration for the late artist, and laid the foundation for his fascination with paying homage to his blackness, most notably in his Black Monoliths series.
Whitten was born in Alabama in 1939 and was living in Queens when he died in January of this year.
Using techniques such as raking and scraping of acrylic paint and embedding of tiles, Whitten dedicated his creations to black icons – Mohammed Ali, Barbara Jordan, Maya Angelou, Ornette Coleman, and others. While the images featured on the canvases emerge subtly, they introduce central characteristics of the respective subjects. In Black Monolith XI (Six Kinky Strings for Chuck Berry), red wires cascade over the vibrantly colored tiles, symbolizing the rock ‘n’ roll legend’s guitar playing talent.
Whitten’s interest in African and African-American symbols is revealed most poignantly in his sculpture Homage to Malcolm, created in 1965, the year the activist was assassinated. The sculpture, made of carved wood embedded with nails, pays tribute to the tradition of the Kongo people, “nkisi n’kondi” figures. These figures, which also have sharp figures embedded into them, are believed to have spiritual significance and power, and operate as “spiritual vessels and protective forces.” The allusion to the Central African tradition is suitable for its subject, as Malcolm X stood out for his pride in his African roots and black nationalist beliefs, and was often seen as a leader and protector of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.
The ‘nkisi’ tradition reappears in two of Whitten’s sculptures, The Guardian I, for Mary and The Guardian II, for Mirsini, made for his wife and his daughter, respectively. The sculpture for his daughter contains ‘secret’ materials, only known by Whitten himself; while the sculpture for his wife contains materials such as locks of her actual hair, bus tickets, sage leaves, and olive leaves, all behind a piece of glass, viewable to the audience. Consistent with his reverence for the ‘nkisi’ beliefs, each material inside the sculptures holds spiritual relevance.
The two pieces not only highlight thematic elements such as family and roots, but they reveal Whitten’s ability to combine these themes in different settings he lived in, such as, in this case, the island of Crete. In Whitten’s work, his time in Crete becomes apparent in the materials he used, which have Cretan origins, but also in the appearance of Greek and Mediterranean themes. One such piece is Afro American Thunderbolt, invoking the idea of the Greek God Zeus, while also alluding to the Black Power Movement that was gaining attention during the era the artist was creating the sculpture. The piece, covered in copper wire, reminds the audience of Whitten’s reliance materials to drive his themes home, and the copper reflects the idea of power.
One of the last sculptures in the exhibit commands the center of the floor, hanging from the ceiling and suspended by a green fishing line. The black mulberry piece, spanning almost six feet from top to bottom, is gutted in the center and filled with fishing materials, drawing on the time Whitten spent in Crete and the water that surrounds the island. However, the sculpture’s name leaves a more haunting sentiment to its onlookers – The Death of Fishing – which is eerily reminiscent of the lynching of blacks in the United States throughout the Jim Crow period. Those who pass by look on with solemn expressions, as the exhibition floor remains silent and as Jack Whitten’s legacy radiates.