Alberta Whittle's How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth / credit: Ruth Clark
Round-up of exhibitions currently taking place in venues across the city
The effect of V&A Dundee, one year on from its opening, isn't just that it's a destination building for visitors from across Scotland and beyond, but that it's now part of an ecology of good-quality galleries within the city which add up to a greater whole; that one destination might become a wider experience, when spending time in the city and travelling between them.
Of the three autumn exhibits being covered here, the most notable one is surely Alberta Whittle's How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth at Dundee Contemporary Arts (★★★★☆), the Barbadian-Scots artist's first major solo exhibition in the UK (although you can see more examples of her thought-provoking work in a current joint show at Edinburgh Printmakers). Whittle's films, sculptures, prints and photographic works are superficially playful and bright, but mask a tremendously thoughtful reflection upon the way black history has been interpreted across the centuries by white tellers, and how this narrative might be reclaimed.
Her commissioned prints for this show are the most subtle; a quartet of woodcuts adapted from 16th century engravings by Theodore de Bry from the book 1492: What is it Like to Be Discovered, which chart Columbus' arrival in the Americas. Printed by Whittle in a kind of negative effect, against bright backgrounds, the pieces implicitly speak of how history might be obscured and rewritten, but also seen afresh from a new perspective. In the next room, a film featuring the voice of Whittle's grandmother and a trio of totemic sculptural pieces formed from clay, found shells and, most spectacularly, a hanging coated figure trailing robes of tartan appear to speak of the power of cultural and familial myth.
Studio Nicholas Daley / credit: Michael McGurk
Elsewhere, sculptures featuring a bell hanging from braided hair and afro combs, a ghostly taffeta figure performing a limbo dance, and a pair of Barbadian chattel house-type structures emerging from the floor – onto one of which is projected the film 'from the forest to the concrete (to the forest)', a piece reflecting Caribbean displacement through climate change and inequality – combine to create a show which is instructive and thought-provoking, yet also richly enjoyable for the breadth of Whittle's imagination and humour.
At the V&A itself, meanwhile, Studio Nicholas Daley (★★★★☆) is a relatively modest exhibition in the upstairs foyer space, yet it packs in a wealth of information and contextual material which, like Whittle's work, places an international racial diaspora within a very Scottish context. In the Leicester-raised, London-based Daley's case, his position as a fast-rising young fashion designer – who has worked with Fred Perry and Adidas, as well as clothing some of London's young jazz stars – is shown as a product of his Scots-Jamaican heritage.
On one side of his family, his mother Maureen's Dundonian origins are illustrated by the generational aspect of jute mill work in the city, with a focus on the life of mill worker and political activist Mary Brooksbank, an inspiration of Daley's. On the other, his father Jeffrey's Jamaican background is expanded upon in the stories of the Reggae Klub and Slygo Soundsystem, both reggae clubs which his parents ran in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow around the turn of the 1980s. We see posters, a T-shirt which his father designed and some personal photos of these events, including gigs by Musical Youth and in support of Rock Against Racism.
This compact exhibit is densely packed with Daley's influences, in the form of a kind of mood board photo wall, alongside books, records, fabric samples and films, showing how Scottish tweeds merge with Jamaican and South Asian styles in his collections. It feels like brief but total immersion within his creative practice.
Elsewhere, Among the Polar Ice (★★★★☆) at the McManus is both the most traditional and the most far-travelled of these three very international shows. Drawn from the city of Dundee's fine art and whaling collections (and who knew the latter even existed?), the exhibition focuses upon Frances Walker's art from her 2007 expedition to the Antarctic, a lifelong ambition which the James McBey Travel Award made possible, and James Morrison's paintings from his travels in the Canadian Arctic during the early 90s.
Both sets of extremely evocative works by these Scottish artists are presented alongside oil paintings by William G Burn Murdoch from the Dundee Antarctic Whaling Exhibition of 1892-93, the first photographs of the Antarctic by Herbert Ponting from 1911 and other works, as well as an emperor penguin rendered through taxidermy. Although not, on the surface, as political as the other exhibitions occurring in the city alongside it, Among the Polar Ice is explicitly conscious of the climactic changes in these areas, and of making its audience aware of the threat to these beautiful regions which the vast majority of them will never visit.
Alberta Whittle: How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth is at Dundee Contemporary Arts, until Sun 24 Nov; Studio Nicholas Daley is at V&A Dundee, until Sun 2 Feb; Among the Polar Ice is at the McManus Art Gallery and Museum, Dundee, until Sun 8 Mar.