The migrant’s journey: Artist Cosmo Whyte forges a new identity in a new land
Whyte, who is artist in residence at Lux Art Institute, says: ‘I hope to create interest in a larger conversation on immigration and certainly the notion of identity. The identity you had in your home country is not who you will be in your host country’
Lux Art Institute has reopened after months of COVID-19-related closure. It is fitting that it celebrates by featuring its first artist-in-residence of the season whose multimedia work echoes conversations and conflicts in today’s uncertain times.
Cosmo Whyte’s drawings, sculpture, performance photographs and thoughtful installations explore the trauma of the migrant experience and loss of identity, touching on how tourism, hospitality and the legacies of colonialism come into play.
The showing is not a political statement; it is entirely personal.
Whyte was born on the Caribbean Island of Jamaica and now, as a naturalized American, resides in Atlanta, where he is an art instructor and program director at Morehouse College. His personal work visualizes growing up in Jamaica, the culture shock he experienced when he moved to Vermont for college, and his ongoing struggles with assimilation as an immigrant in the United States.
“The migration experience is both universal and unique,” Whyte said. No matter where they come from, why they are leaving home, or where they are headed, migrants must navigate different customs, behaviors and values as they search for their place in a strange new world. It is experienced differently by race, gender and nationality, and the journey can be confusing, emotional and traumatic, he said.
“I hope to create interest in a larger conversation on immigration and certainly the notion of identity,” said Whyte, who is a Black man. “The identity you had in your home country is not who you will be in your host country.”
Now on display at Lux are several large charcoal drawings and two sound-producing sculptures that separately pay homage to the music of Jamaica and to a beloved American TV series about a middle-class African American family.
Whyte draws figures with heavy strokes of charcoal on large white backgrounds, and then erases, sands and cuts the paper. Faces are covered or are otherwise indistinct.
Keloid Drawings No. 1 and 2 feature abstract figures in a tangle of limbs. A keloid is a type of raised scar that develops where skin has healed after an injury. It tends to show more prominently on dark skin.
He incorporates symbols of history. “No Longer Yours” and “Nocturne in Blue and Gold” are both arresting charcoal images with surprising applications of gold leaf. The gold leaf is a symbol of global conquest and greed, representing the search for riches that drew Europeans to colonize the Americas, he said.
Two sculptures provide separate soundtracks.
“Sole Imperial” resembles a stack of stereo speakers topped by a cresting wave. The structure is inspired by Jamaican sound systems assembled of plywood and audio equipment and operated by DJs. These sound systems were tall and heavy yet easily portable in the back of pickup trucks to provide music for spontaneous street dance parties. Whyte’s sculpture plays excerpts of a recorded interview about how these systems boosted Jamaica’s economy and propelled emerging music styles like ska and reggae to worldwide popularity.
“The Promised Land” is an assemblage in front of a canvas backdrop that looks like a vintage fantasy travel poster of Jamaica. Just behind the poster, but visible from the front, is a neon sign advertising visas and green cards. A small music cart plays a slowed-down and distorted version of “The Jeffersons” TV show theme song, “Movin’ on Up.”
When Whyte begins his residency at Lux on Oct. 1, he will start on new drawings that will align with the themes of the work on display. He considers each project as a single essay.
Lux will then install another sculpture, the newest in a captivating series named “Enigma of Arrival.” It shows a row of airline seats covered in brightly colored upholstery, suggesting a welcome for travelers. Around the bottom of the seats are piles of broken china, a hint that the welcome might not be as warm as we thought.
While the Lux exhibit has visuals and sound, Whyte’s shows normally incorporate more sensory elements, such as smell and touch. The coronavirus has made that inadvisable.
Associate Curator Guusje Sanders said small groups of visitors may tour both galleries and safely interact with Whyte, but strict regulations are in place. Visitors must have reservations for specific dates and start times; there is a half-hour break between each group to allow for sanitizing and safe social distancing. Face coverings are required.
The Educational Pavilion is the first stop for a temperature check, and a chance to view the cross-cultural work by regional artist Beliz Iristay, Sanders said. That is followed by a walk through the garden and up the staircase leading to the Artist’s Pavilion and Whyte’s exhibit.
While Whyte has won several prestigious art prizes over the years, it was a contest he did not win that forged his path.
“As a sixth-grade student in Jamaica, I submitted a painting in a school art competition,” he said. “I didn’t win, but my painting was selected to be a postage stamp.
“That is when I knew I wanted to be an artist. That sense of peace I felt in the art classroom is the peace I feel in my art studio. That is definitely something I wanted.”
“A New Territory,” Artist-in-Residence Cosmo Whyte
When: 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Nov. 7
Where: Lux Art Institute, 1550 S. El Camino Real, Encinitas
Admission: Free. Reservations are required.
Phone: (760) 436-6611
— Catherine Gaugh is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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