What he discovered in African art was the very “DNA of visual perception,” a language of geometry that “contained a cosmic worldview that has evolved through millennia,” he wrote.
That expansive, cosmic perspective manifests, in turn, in the cultural hybridity of Whitten’s work, which seems to grow even more dense in his “container” sculptures—modern reliquaries that house keepsakes, bones, and fragments of technological apparatus. Pregnant Owl (1983–84) is like a pint-sized grandfather clock possessed by a living spirit, with a puffed-out chest and a stripe of bone running down its side. Its form was inspired by Crete’s scops owl, and likely also by African and Christian reliquaries, as well as the craftsmanship of local Greek cabinetmakers. Its transparent face reveals the contents of its receptacle: fish teeth, a spark plug, and what might be a piece of dried seaweed.
Whitten was a skilled fisherman, and in several works, his great affinity for the sea is in plain view. Reliquary for Orfos (1978), its upright, slightly tilted posture recalling that of ancient Cycladic figures, houses the bones of the prehistoric-looking Orfos fish, which the artist hunted in underwater caves. The Death of Fishing (2007) is a requiem to the Greek village of Agia Galini’s defunct fishing industry, its slender, melancholic, canoe-like form holding a tangle of fishing nets, wire, and bones. It hangs from the ceiling, which, to Whitten, conveyed the appearance of a lynching.