Jessica Carden

Contemporary visual representations of the non-white figure in the Arctic landscape: British colonial constructions of the ‘Heart of Whiteness’ and the black-white binary as fetish

Chelsea College of Arts, TrAIN Research Centre
University of the Arts London Research Studentship recipient

In my investigation of the Arctic as a region which can be viewed as literally and symbolically ‘white,’ it is essential to realise, as Henry Morley states, that the Arctic was as much ideological as physical terrain, one on which Britons could stage debates about domestic and imperial identities, far from British and colonial shores. As such, the region could (and continues to) exist as a morally ‘stainless’ landscape without the racial threats of slavery and miscegenation present in the traditional colonial and imperial encounter, the lack of an economic motive further reaffirming the ‘pureness’ of the British endeavours. If, as Morley asserts, the history of Arctic exploration should be understood as a “white” history about white Englishmen in a white space, then the non-white figure is an anomaly, eradicated or obscured from visual representations. However, as a recent British Film Institute article stated, there has been a small but noticeable trend for black artists – among them Isaac Julien in True North (2004) and Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) in Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctic (2009) – to mine the creative potential of spaces seen as literally and symbolically white [BFI, 2010].

My doctoral research will commence with three specific case studies, each from Black-British filmmakers using the Arctic as a landscape upon which to discuss issues of race, ethnicity and belonging. I will examine the significance of their personal experience - growing up, living and working - in post-colonial Britain. These include Isaac Julien’s True North [2004]; John Akomfrah’s Mnemosyne [2010] and Grace Ndiritu’s Pole to Pole [2009]. I will pursue my research concurrently with my curatorial project 'Mother Tongue', bringing a practice-led approach to the PhD and employing a curatorial methodology.


Professor Carol Tulloch