Pause and Rewind
Moira Jeffrey writes from the Venice Biennale where Alberta Whittle’s exhibition for Scotland and Venice asks us to take stock of the devastating legacies of colonialism and enslavement.
In a year in which the art world’s most important gathering is set against a background of conflict, and in which the main curated exhibition entitled The Milk of Dreams is focused on women’s voices, Whittle’s presentation for Scotland and Venice, entitled deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory, Is a beautiful, and devastating, pause for thought and compelling call for action.
Her film, Lagareh – The Last Born explores the brutal legacies of colonialism and slavery from the British slave castle at Bunce Island, in Sierra Leone from where more than 30,000 people were enslaved to St Ann’s Garrison in Whittle’s birthplace Barbados, where British Armed Forces were headquartered from the 18th century until 1906.
But it also calls upon it’s viewers to understand the present and violent legacies of this brutal past, closing with a heart-rending lament, performed in Mandinka in an empty courtroom, in memory of Sheku Bayoh, the Kirkcaldy man who died after being restrained by police in the town in 2015.
The artist says, “The luxury of amnesia is a really potent idea in my practice. For so long there was this complete reluctance and avoidance in discussing Scotland’s role within slavery and within plantation economies. There’s this sense that racism and police brutality is an English problem or an American problem, something that isn’t happening on these shores. There are ways in which the luxury of amnesia has been nurtured by governments, by the stories we tell ourselves, by ways we find to avoid our own complicity with our own privilege – and it’s interesting to think about the conversations that are still missing.”
Whittle, who studied at Edinburgh College of Art and took her post-graduate MFA in Glasgow is a vital figure in Scotland’s art scene. Here at SCAN, we were lucky to work with her for many years as one of our trustees. A former committee member of Glasgow’s Transmission gallery she has long been a champion of younger artists of colour and a voice for change calling for a new ethics of care and compassion in the widest sense.
The collected works in her exhibition speak to the need for healing from trauma. Her film juxtaposes brutality with everyday love and family life, and with powerful scenes of movement, song and dance that transform places of pain and suffering from the cane field to the courthouse. A stunning tapestry woven at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, with images of cowrie shells and snaking forms, is woven through with glass trading beads and whaling rope. The work suggests we must untangle ourselves from colonial legacies and weave new relationships.
Scotland’s presentation is housed in a former workshop on a bustling little canal beside the city’s grand naval dock yards. The artist has transformed the working quayside into a place of comfort in which to reflect on her message of trauma and healing. The walls are painted a deep violet. The works in the exhibition are framed by green metal screens, some studded with pastel glass. The wooden pallets that supported the artwork’s transit have been repurposed as benches now padded with colourful wax print fabric cushions, there are hand-knitted blankets for the chillier days when the wind blows in from the Venice lagoon.
Beyond its frantic opening week, the Biennale attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, with national pavilions and accompanying exhibitions in venues across the city. SCAN is supporting Scotland and Venice’s professional development programme which allows young people from Scotland to gain professional experience by acting as visitor assistants at Whittle’s exhibition. Joanne Lee, an artist from Glasgow will work at the venue for four weeks.
Alberta Whittle’s film Lagareh – The Last Born will tour venues in Scotland later this year and in 2023 The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh will host a major exhibition of her work.