Alberta Whittle (b.1980) – artist, researcher and curator – is a Barbadian-Scottish artist who utilises various media in her work, including installation, print, film, sculpture and performance.
Her 2019 series 'Secreting Myths' utilised laser-engraved woodblock print on paper. These works interrogated the sixteenth-century engravings of Theodor de Bry that visualised the first encounters of European invaders with the territories and people of the West Indies.
In the 2022 Scotland + Venice Biennale exhibition, Whittle continues to unravel the history of entanglement between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean in her new work deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory. Whittle said that this commissioned installation – a composition of sculpture, tapestry, painting and film – is the culmination of a period of unrest, breaking apart and coming together, in protest, grief and loss: a period that started in early 2020, as COVID-19 became an everyday reality.
Whittle's deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory is a work commissioned by Creative Scotland, British Council Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland, Architecture and Design Scotland, V&A Dundee and the Scottish Government, and is an example of how art can be used to address the social and political questions of contemporary times.
The Scotland + Venice installation builds a fellowship and a conversation with the audience, with a sense from Whittle that when people are united together, love can be used as a form of resistance against hostile environments.
The bold, bright-yellow sculptures of various punctuation shapes are spaced apart on the wet, cold, grey concrete floors, yet they invite communication and collaboration. The installation invites the audience to view familiar materials and objects in an alternative light as they contemplate the historical legacies of colonialism.
Whittle is a collaborative artist; the ethos of the installation was also used in its production. As an advocate of working together, Whittle allied with Glasgow Sculpture Studios – who created the green gates in deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory. The tapestry was a combined effort with Dovecot Studios, and Art Night and the University of Johannesburg were also contributors to this installation.
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Whittle's early training at Edinburgh College of Art was in tapestry, and she continues to weave her stories into the installations she constructs and the questions that they ask of the audience. The tapestry, Entanglement is more than blood, appears like a sculpture of entangled snakes, connected to inquisitive, exploring white hands that signify the reach of the Empire – these hands are made from a donation of whaling ropes.
The use of hands, as a form of pain, but also as a means of gentle, intimate touch is demonstrated in the film Lagareh – The Last Born, which is an elemental part of the Scotland + Venice installation and is co-commissioned and produced by Forma.
The film centres on the themes of intimacy and touch, and shows that human connection can be tender or violent. The closeness of the couple in the film was in direct contrast to the situation at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, when touch and close contact was discouraged.
The film was shot on location in Scotland, London and Barbados and features footage from Venice and West Africa, as a continuing echo of the tapestry theme.
The film is a visual weaving of interlinked global stories. The colour red features prominently as an integral marker of the hidden histories of Black bodies being broken – from the inception of the transatlantic slave trade to contemporary means of control. Lagareh – The Last Born is a homage to Sheku Bayou, who died in 2015 after being restrained by Scottish police officers in Kirkcaldy.
Prominently featured in the film are four women dressed in red, to signify the blood of violently enslaved women. The filming took place at St Anne's Garrison in Barbados, which is the oldest prison, and on Newton Plantation, which had the notoriety of being the oldest burial ground in that part of the Caribbean. Additional themes of the film and the associated tapestry include the sense of borders and containment.
An important component of the installation deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory is the presence of the sculptural green gates: the gate is a porous border that allows surveillance. The art installation pushes the boundaries of seeing and understanding.
The location of the installation, in Venice, is integral to the work as Venice was a port town in the early times of globalisation and the slave trade. There are purple and pink stained-glass panels in a green cage-like structure that are reminiscent of Venetian glass lamps.
Whittle references the role that Venice played in transatlantic slavery, which contributed to systemic racism, and how premature Black death exists as a catastrophe in the daily lives of everyone. The works invite consideration of what it means to encounter death in a daily way as a person of colour does through hostile environments.
The metalwork gate in the installation is uniform and upright, and holds the art and viewers in place. The gates are insurmountable in ordinary circumstances, but they cannot stop the advance of water – they speak to what is being contained and what elements have free passage through the spaces in the metal.
Through the undertaking of looking and immersion in the art, the audience is invited to engage in the activity of learning and unlearning. At the base of one corner of the gate structure, there lie a number of conches, cowrie beads and, on one upright, the word '(pause)' is welded into the bars. Other words encourage the viewer to 'Remember' and 'Breathe'.
As two wings to the central tapestry, the words embedded in the gates ask 'WHAT LIES BELOW'. The reverse of the tapestry itself exposes the loose threads of the creation and the inclusion of salvaged shells and ropes from Barbados and Ayrshire – where some of the filmed elements were captured. The cowrie shells and the Venetian trading beads are representative of the currency used to buy and sell human beings, and locate the practice within central Europe and in the African continent during periods of oppression.
Whittle's deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory is about the history of the past, but also about how the process of building the community of the present day is a form of resistance and love, and a process by which people can form new strategies of being together.
Whittle's artwork is an interrogation of how history is viewed while considering its impact on the decisions we make in current times. Whittle is presenting an opportunity to be a part of a chain reaction, to collaborate in an enduring global conversation wherein people start having the missing discussions.
The Scotland + Venice installation is an opportunity for both locations to abandon the selective forgetfulness that privilege brings regarding their collusion in the transatlantic slave trade, and to acknowledge each nation's part in the global people trafficking business. Whittle's deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory invites the audience to (pause), to consider their relationships to power, and how, within their own lives, cause-and-effect is a part of a global chain reaction.
Marjorie H. Morgan, playwright, director, producer and journalist
The Scotland + Venice Biennale exhibition is open until 27th November 2022 at Docks Cantieri Cucchini in the east of the city