Of Rage, Grief, Hope, Healing, Love | In Conversation With Alberta Whittle
At the Scottish Pavillion, the artist juxtaposes notions of memory, colonialism and oppression with healing, hope and reconciliation through a combination of film, painting, tapestry and metalwork.
During the Transatlantic slave trade, people kidnapped from various regions of West Africa were often confined to transient places, waiting to be transported towards the plantations of the West Indies and North America. Deprived of their humanity and freedom, and assuming they were going to be slaughtered like cattle after they were similarly branded on the chest, many abandoned themselves to a catatonic state of lethargy, refusing to eat drink and sleep.
This heavy material is drawn from the third chapter of Lagareh / the Last Born (2022), the video work that artist Alberta Whittle presents as the main installation of her show deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory at the collateral Scotland+Venice event at the Venice Biennale. Titled The Burden of Proof, the cloudy skies, lush vegetation and water surrounding Bunce Island, Sierra Leone form the background against which a catatonic state of lethargy sets in, and that Dr. Isatu Smith narrates in the film, inducing both physical and emotional shock. Yet, above the exit/entrance of the Pavilion, Whittle has placed a sentence that seems to detach itself from the wall and move around the inner and outer space, acting both as a warning and a dose of healing: INVEST in love.
The pavilion is deliberately located in the Arsenale, at Docks Cantieri Cucchini, slightly set back from the area where the more formal presentations take place. Amidst the chaos of the preview days of the Biennale, it is a place of respite: The deep purple walls absorb the lights inside. However, natural light floods in through the missing wall, replaced by a green sculptural gate overlooking one of Venice’s canals with the word ‘’Remember’’ attached to it. A shell at the far-left foot of the gate and a yellow be-spoke sofa in the shape of punctuation mark at the centre of the room complete the installation.
The use of text is repeated in all the metalwork sculptures within the exhibition: Words or motifs to be read and processed, interrupting the vertical linearity of the metal bars. While Whittle’s metalwork structures evoke punishment, incarceration and slavery, they also create space for pause, remembrance and reflection. “I write poems, and they sometimes appear in my work. My poetry really arises from the desire for it to be read out loud, as if it was part of an oral tradition.” Orality, whether spoken or emerging from visual prompts, is a pattern in Whittle’s work. “I created these suggestions in order to let the audience embrace the idea of slowing down and staying with the work, to let there be room for pauses and reactions.”
Memory occupies a central role in the artist’s work, assuming different forms. One of these is in the form of water, a non-place and a symbol of trade and travel, a place of death but also rebirth. But the memory that Whittle claims collides with the West’s collective amnesia. “Growing up in the Caribbean, everywhere you looked there were plantations and sugarcane, which is extremely dissonant with the British approach to such history. There’s so little conversation about the relationship between the plantation state and the industrial revolution and how it was created’’ she points out. This reflection has long been part of her investigation.
Being a Barbados-born artist, highlighting the historical link that binds Scotland to the Caribbean was nearly inevitable for Whittle. The wealth of major Scottish lords and merchants can be largely traced to the sugar cane plantations created in the Caribbean during the seventeenth century. On the other hand, Lagareh / the Last Born also highlights the state of lethargy into which oppressed communities slide into. Whittle claims the right of these communities to stop, settle and heal. To love beyond violence: ”The mistake is to think that not all of us remember and to fall into a state of numbness. I want us to slow down. I think there is a lot of pressure for overproduction, especially as freelance workers and racialized communities. I want us to take time, sit down with ourselves and understand with a greater sense of introspection our relationship with the themes of my work.”
The theme of memory also emerges in the form of symbolic references that recall Caribbean cultures of resistance. Whittle refers to this legacy through divinatory motifs and symbols that also flourish in other works, such as Entanglement is more than blood (2022) a tapestry sewn together by many hands, embellished with glass beads, ropes and cowrie shells. Its motif and material tell a story of maritime trade, resisting women, and a story where nature protects the oppressed. The artist elaborates the act of deliberately remembering as conducive to unlearning. On one wall, there is a painting of her as a child, asleep, made by her mother, which reinforces the initial intention of her installation. Under the painting, there is a actual headrest and blankets, which invite the spectators to emulate the actions of the painting.
At 40-minutes, Lagareh – The Last Born (2022) is a triumph of carefully intertwined styles and stories. From archival juxtaposition to intimate convivial moments, Whittle divides the plot into seven days, one for each day of the week, inspired by Caribbean gothic traditions and unearthing a connection between forced labour and the allocation of time in weekdays. The iridescent video work superimposes moments of tenderness, such as the one where a Black queer couple in Italy, Ama and Ange share with Whittle their plans of being legally married and having a baby together, with moments of historical clarity that are drenched with more dramatic intent and equally imbued with poetry, including Black women brandishing machetes in colonial sites in Barbados and children running in the midst of nature. These video fragments aim to appreciate the culture, practices and histories of rebellion that have been silently passed through dissident communities in the Caribbean.
The film’s scenes are shot across the world—in Scotland, England, Italy, Sierra Leone and Barbados—suggesting that systemic violence is a global phenomenon that involves multiple relations of power. “There are a lot of things I wanted to talk about. Yes, the work is done by me, a Barbadian-Scottish artist, but there is a lot of Italy and a lot of what I wanted to talk about is valuable transnationally” she adds. The work is also conceptually linked to Venice itself, she explains. “I wanted there to be a relationship between the concept of gateway and ghettoisation. The phrase ghetto emerged in Venice, with the local Jewish community. And Venice was a gateway to the East and to trade routes.’’
Black women are at the centre of the film, hinting at how women were often the leaders of rebellions and riots. “The scene where you see a woman with machetes is a poem I wrote for my great grandmother, one of the last people that worked on a plantation, and she also died prematurely leaving my mother and her sister aged 5 and 3. Part of my practice is also based on an exercise of imagination of such histories. How did she imagine the survival of her daughters? Did she even dream of it? Did she dream that I would be alive? So many women in my life motivated this work, they come in to take space in the film. I wanted there to be a multiplicity of authority. We have to encourage the authority of Black and women of colour.’’
An unforgettable fragment of the film calls out the names of those who have been the victims of state violence in the UK. Whittle channels her anger into art, transforming it into hope in the process “A lot of my work comes from deep rage. When covid-19 happened, and brown and Black people were blamed for their deaths, I felt like I needed to do this work, turning the mirror to the state. There is so much instrumentalization coming from the art work. But I do make it because I’m hopeful.” The organic development of the film is reflected by the artist’s personal cycles of rage and hope, channelling what comes from a personal place of vulnerability into a tool for healing and self-liberation. Whittle’s work conjures rage, tenderness, care and reconciliation.
Alberta Whittle’s ‘deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory’ at the 59th Venice art Biennale runs until November 27, 2022
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