Reviewing recent work by Alberta Whittle, Emily Dinsdale (Dazed) writes, “The artist reveals the motivation behind the new exhibition representing Scotland at this year’s Venice Biennale.” [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]
By the water’s edge, Alberta Whittle’s deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory looks out across a glittering Venetian canal amid the spectacle of the floating city’s 59th International Art Exhibition. Using painting, tapestry, metalwork, and film, the Barbadian-Scottish multimedia artist draws on the traumatic histories of slavery and empire while bringing us into direct contact with some of the most urgent and crucial issues of the day yet offering immeasurable tenderness and care.
With an emphasis on “investing in love”, this exhibition confronts what Whittle describes as the “luxury of amnesia” – a state of privileged communal memory loss in which we are able to forget and overlook the atrocities of the past, allowing us to drift into a state of lethargy and inertia. While recalling harrowing stories of human evil, deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory is an incredibly healing experience. “I’m really trying to create these moments where we are being tended to ourselves, and ways in which I can offer care to the audience,” Whittle says. “We are very much in danger of empathy fatigue, but I still think our humanity is available to us.”
Commissioned for La Biennale di Venezia by the Scotland+Venice partnership (with funding support from the National Lottery through Creative Scotland), Whittle excavates the layers of history and meaning impregnated in material objects and sites of memory (or lieux de mémoire). Spellbinding tales of tragedy, womanhood, courage, family, emancipation, loss, lineage, redemption, and, overwhelmingly, of love, unfurl in a series of poignant vignettes, poetic spoken words, artefacts, songs, and stories.
While the exhibition is set to tour later in the year, this idyllic canal-side location is an uncannily perfect resting place for an artwork in which water is a recurring presence. Summoning associations of transportation and trade routes – especially in a city that was once a global power built on trade – water permeates the work in myriad ways, embodying what Whittle describes as a “space of loss” and “a graveyard”, also as a bearer of secrets as she speculates, “What stories is the water going to tell?”
I met Alberta Whittle in Venice for a conversation about healing and restoration, why we need to radically unlearn pervasive narratives of white supremacy, and how to reclaim our humanity and agency from the lethargy of cultural amnesia.
Please could you begin by introducing us to this work and talking us through the sensory experience of deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory?
Alberta Whittle: When I first started thinking about the feeling or the shape that I wanted the exhibition to take, the story sticking in my mind is when I was walking with my dad, and we were on the east coast of Barbados during lockdown. We came across this rock face and it exposed all of these corals and all of these layers, and it made me think so much about what is lying beneath the surface, and I wanted there to be the sense of excavation… connecting very much to climate catastrophe and waters moving but also, what’s the residue of these different times that we’re moving through? And what stories is the water gonna tell?
That image really echoes the beautiful sense of lineage and of physical objects impregnated with memory and history which pervades the whole work.
Alberta Whittle: Memory is a really important point in my research. I think we’re in the state of the luxury of amnesia, which is rarely dealt with. The title of this work, it’s got that very deliberate pause, and that pause is there to encourage us to settle… to settle into this state where we can really think, what have we forgotten? And so, by looking at memory, and actually almost using memory studies as a way to encourage this process of unlearning, I think we can really start to band together and think about change and encouraging different voices, intervening into what we understand of as history.
The film is very focused on women as the custodians of memory and as healers.
Alberta Whittle: Absolutely. We never hear about women as leaders of rebellions, leaders who actually lead the struggle towards abolition. It was really important for me to forefront them, because I know they were there, I know these ancestors were there. And they would have been demonised and punished. But we’ve also been silenced. So I wanted there to be this multitude of voices from women to be at the forefront of this research. [. . .]
We’re sat here in Venice, surrounded by canals. Could you tell me why water is such a recurring presence in this work?
Alberta Whittle: As someone who grew up on a tiny island, I’ve always thought of the water as being where I first started thinking about being creative and as a place of rebirth. It was only when I got older and I was talking with my parents and my grandparents about how this island was formed through conquest, through bloodshed, and through the subjugation of Black indigenous people, and then I started to think of the water much more as being this space of loss and as a graveyard.
In some ways, I think I’ve made the exhibition space into a space that is enlivened with ghosts. It’s about giving hospitality to ghosts, and hospitality to history. So, rather than thinking of them as hostile or sinister, the exhibition tries to think about: how do we take care of the dead? It’s more about thinking of them as ancestors who we need to create a space of peace for. [. . .]
[. . .] You’re confronting so many of the most urgent issues of the day but do you do so with a great deal of tenderness. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about those issues and how you approached them?
Alberta Whittle: For a long time, I’ve been thinking so much about loss, about abolition, about deportations from the Windrush generation.
I knew that I wanted the work to reference people who have experienced loss and how that power is articulated through the hostile environment, through systemic racism, or the legacies of empire, and empire-building. But I wanted the work here to represent a multiplicity of stories, a multiplicity of perspectives, which are entangled with thinking about loss, thinking about power, and thinking about race. [. . .]
[Shown above: 1) Alberta Whittle, Lagareh, “The Last Born”, film still – single-channel video (2022) Photography Matthew Arthur Williams, © Alberta Whittle. Courtesy the artist, Scotland+Venice, and Forma. 2) Photography Cristiano Corte, © Alberta Whittle. Courtesy the artist, Scotland + Venice.]