Nick Whittle: “There was the sea”

Nick Whittle tells Robert Edison Sandiford how the Caribbean has influenced his art

Artist Nick Whittle. Photograph by Martin CarnegieInnerscape V: mixed media piece (collage, gouache, monoprint, inks, etc) on acid-free watercolour paper. Photograph by Martin Carnegie

From age 11 to 18, I attended what was a unique school, Moseley School of Art, in Birmingham. It was what you call a feeder school for the art colleges, as they were then called, and universities. Most people who went there ended up doing something related to the arts, whether it was theatre, music, drama. A couple members of UB40 went there—they were a bit younger than I was: the Campbell twins. That experience was the most formative in my education. I left in 1972. In 1973, the Labour government closed it down because it was thought to be elite.

It was a multicultural school, so I was aware of the Caribbean from that time, because I had friends, classmates, who were originally from Jamaica. So that kind of was interesting, and I became interested in African art and the blues and jazz and all sorts of things like that.

One of the key things in terms of my work has always been to experiment, to go further, to try new things. Always in England, I felt like an outsider. When I came to Barbados in June, July 1979, I had just completed a fellowship in painting at Sunderland Polytechnic (now University of Sunderland) just below Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast. There were a lot of galleries at that time, and I started to show work…with a theme that has continued throughout my work, and that is our relationship with water.

I studied at Newcastle University, which has the River Tyne, and I used to love walking the river and walking across the bridges, and there was a beautiful swing bridge there. And the same at Sunderland. And in Birmingham, where I grew up, there was a canal. And every summer holiday when we were young we would go to the south of England. My grandparents lived in Bournemouth, where there was the sea.

So coming to Barbados replaced that kind of relationship with water. I’m using the sea as a metaphor for all sorts of other meanings, whether it’s the birth, the rebirth, the womb, this whole idea of life changing, everything changing, the cycle of things. My work is autobiographical, as most people’s work is, either obviously or less so, and it was really trying to find a language that would, using Eliot’s phrase, be an “objective correlative” to my emotions, my feelings about place.

When I came, I went straight into teaching full-time at secondary school. So that day job made me use the time more wisely, more preciously. I did produce a lot of work that was influenced by Barbados. Colours became much richer and more vibrant. I started to explore the island and to make connections, especially in the work from the 90s, looking at shells and coral and all these things you would find, especially on the East Coast. (As you know, Consett Bay is my favourite place.) Using them as symbols, making them more into my personal iconography in the work, so that I would also look at bringing in words, literally. At university, I put huge chunks of writing in pieces of work; not my own writing, but others’. In Barbados, I started to do that but with my own words. I then became more confident in my own writing as a poet. I started to think in terms of trying to create a personal madras, this cloth that you find all over the Caribbean. To me, it links in very much with the whole Scottish tartan. My mother was Scottish. I started getting interested in weaving my own tartan but with images, with shells and coral.

I don’t like labels. I’m an artist who works in the Caribbean. I think it’s problematic to label someone, because it comes with all sorts of other baggage. Most Rastafarian artists I know do not want to be known as Rastafarian artists. Any artist, whether they’re a literary artist or whatever, wherever they end up residing, if they’re sensitive, the environment is going to influence the work. There are times I’m working, and I think, “Yes, this work speaks of my experience in Barbados, and therefore is Barbadian or Caribbean and could not have been produced if I was living in London.” The more recent work, certainly, I cannot imagine doing it outside the Caribbean.

The first artist to significantly influence me was Kurt Schwitters, and he produced a merzbau (an art installation piece built of found objects) in 1947 in the Lake District in England. He was also a kind of sound poet. The other artist—going way back now: a 17th-century artist—is Nicolas Poussin. I did my dissertation on Poussin. Those two artists are still my friends. I look at a lot of modern contemporary art, but consciously I’m not aware of that influence.

Music has played a significant role in my artistic development. Dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. Jazz and blues. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, which then brought me to Kamau Brathwaite’s Other Exiles. It made me think of my own work, this whole idea of improvisation, this jazz aesthetic. To improvise, you need to know so much before you really can. That led me into taking up the piano in the late 90s. I mean, I couldn’t play a thing. Now, I can play sonatinas.

Writing is serious to me. I find it incredibly difficult. I’ve always been a closet poet, I suppose. Some of the poems that I’ve written have been, in a way, more addressed to the land in Barbados. Of course, My Land is more to do with me and this place than what we’re doing to the landscape.

Barbadian art must be seen in the context of the Caribbean. We can’t just reference ourselves. It has to be a dialogue with what’s happening in the region. There is such a common, shared experience, but also different experience. For us to see how our work relates, I think it’s important to get to know each other better. I think it’s vital. To be yourself.