Alberta Whittle: create dangerously was an immersive exhibition which invited visitors to slow down and pause. At the heart of Alberta’s solo show is her generous spirit which promotes compassion and collective care as means of resisting racism and anti-Blackness.
In her works, Alberta addresses the brutality and harm caused by colonialism, the Transatlantic trade in enslaved people, and the ongoing climate crisis. Through richly symbolic artworks, she pulls apart the belief that ’racism and police brutality is [just] an English problem or an American problem’. Instead she underlines Scotland’s complicity in the structures of white supremacy. Often deeply personal, weaving stories of family and belonging, Alberta ultimately offers a message of hope, asking us to imagine a world outside of these damaging systems and ways of thinking.
This was the largest showing of Alberta’s works to date, with sculptures, digital collages, watercolours and new paintings, made especially for the show, taking over the ground floor of Modern One. Alongside never-before-seen artworks, the exhibition offered visitors the opportunity to see Alberta’s extraordinary tapestry, Entanglement is more than blood, and film installation, Lagareh – The Last Born – which the artist presented at the Venice Biennale in 2022, commissioned by Scotland+Venice.
Alberta Whittle: create dangerously wass a unique opportunity to experience the ambition and breadth of the Barbadian-Scottish artist’s career to date, and to consider Alberta’s call for us to ‘invest in love’.
Works in this exhibition openly addressed racism, chattel enslavement, violence and grief. Texts throughout the exhibition consider these issues and themes, and how they relate to colonialism.
Alberta Whittle: create dangerously was kindly supported by Baillie Gifford, Art Fund, National Galleries of Scotland Foundation, The African Arts Trust, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow, and The Alberta Whittle Exhibition Supporters’ Circle: Lesley Knox, Shane Akeroyd, John Storey, Ebele Okobi, Vanessa Johnson-Burgess, and donors who wish to remain anonymous.
Room 1: Create Dangerously
The title of the exhibition embodies a central idea in Alberta’s creative practice. To ‘create dangerously’ reflects the responsibility felt by Alberta, and others, to take risks and to speak out for those who have been silenced. Alberta recognises the role of the audience, and the dialogue – or ‘pact’ – we might enter into with the artist as we view or read her work.
Alberta is inspired by Create Dangerously: the immigrant artist at work (2010) written by Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat (born 1969). Danticat writes: ‘There are many possible interpretations of what it means to create dangerously … it is creating as a revolt against silence, creating when both the creation and the reception, the writing and the reading, are dangerous undertakings.’ Danticat acknowledges the lecture Create Dangerously (1957) by French-Algerian writer Albert Camus (1913-1960). Both texts can be found in the exhibition Resource Room.
Room 2: Celestial Meditations and other digital collages
‘… in the Caribbean, collage as a method is so important. Because you’re dealing with a culture and infrastructure where you do not know when you’re getting materials again. So collage is very much … make do, but it’s also about trying to make something beautiful out of very few materials.’ – Alberta Whittle
Alberta’s fantastical, collaged landscapes are layered with her own rich visual language: water, shells, corals, tall ships and the vegetation and vibrant palette of Barbados. These motifs reference the global blood ties of Empire which connect Scotland and the Caribbean.
With cosmic backdrops and a distinctive sci-fi atmosphere, her digital collages can be linked to ‘Afrofuturism’, a philosophy and aesthetics originating in literature. Afrofuturist art typically fuses science, technology, and the past and present, to imagine a new, dynamic future through the lens of Black culture and the African diaspora. Such works acknowledge the deep and lasting impacts of colonialism, with a view to shaping a new world outside of its damaging systems. Alberta often incorporates her own performances to camera in her digital collages, claiming and creating space, and expressing power, vulnerability, defiance and joy.
Room 3: HOLDING THE LINE: A refrain in two parts, 2021
HD Video (original shooting format: 2K, HD, mobile phone footage)
This film addresses racism, protest, and the impacts of recent legislation on Black people and people of colour. Made in 2020 and 2021, the film records events during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It includes footage of Black Lives Matter protests, which intensified after the murder of George Floyd (1973-2020) by police in the United States on 25 May 2020.
Alberta references two UK laws: Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, giving police the power to stop and search individuals ‘without suspicion’; and the Police, Crimes, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This proposed legislation was condemned by civil liberties groups. Amnesty International UK stated that the Bill, ‘places profound and significant restrictions on the basic right to peacefully protest … and will further entrench racism and discrimination in British policing through its huge expansion of stop-and-search powers’. The bill was voted into law on 26 April 2022.
Beginning the film with a meditative chant, Alberta carefully holds the viewer. The work expresses the care, love and hope needed to combat racism, and the exhaustion felt by generations who for decades have campaigned for change.
Produced for Art Night, London 2021.
Room 4: Memorial for ‘The Great Carew’ aka Neville Denis Blackman, 2019
Painted wood, metal
This work provides a focal point for grief and remembrance. It honours the beloved Barbadian musician Neville Denis Blackman (died 1995). Known as ‘The Great Carew’, he was a calypsonian, sharing the storytelling tradition of calypso music, rooted in protest and satire.
Blackman died tragically on 3 August 1995, when his home on the west coast of Barbados was swept out to sea during a severe storm. The work acknowledges the impacts of the climate crisis on communities of colour who are already affected by social-economic and geographical factors. In this way, it explores the links between colonisation and environmental breakdown. From the 17th century onwards, industrial-scale cultivation of tobacco, sugar and other non-native species resulted in irreversible changes to the Caribbean environment.
The memorial takes the form of a ‘chattel house’, found across Barbados. Traditionally constructed using salvaged materials such as corrugated metal and timber, these moveable buildings have their origins in the plantation system. Originally used to house enslaved African men, women and children, Alberta reflects on the structure as a space where home was nurtured and rebellion was fostered.
Room 5: When our auras meet – collaborations of care
This room offers a gentle space for rest. Here, Alberta welcomes you to take a moment and reflect on the themes of the exhibition so far and the journey you have taken. This is a space for belonging; for human connection and sharing of the emotion evoked by the artworks around you with comfort and radical compassion.
Embodying Alberta’s intimately collaborative and profoundly personal practice, this room includes works that invites a direct connection with her creative process. You can walk in the imprints of the artist’s feet or touch the tiles on the wall. Works by other makers include a portrait of the artist by her mother, and a quilt made by Project Esperanza. Family, pride, identity, liberation and freedom are all richly embedded in the symbolism of these works.
This room is designed to be a space where you can immerse yourself in the love, care and hope Alberta, her mother and Project Esperanza have carefully poured into their creations. Sit and make yourself comfortable. Hear the voices of the women reading their poetry, read their words, feel the power of Alberta’s call for compassionate resistance.
This text has been written by Vicky Nyanga-Ndiaye, on behalf of Project Esperanza Sewing Group.
Room 6: Preparing the body to remember
In the two sculptural works in this room Alberta reflects on themes of mythology, memory, language and storytelling. The 22 bronzes – cast from the artist’s tongue – in A wiggle in the universe: Seven Sisters I are arranged as a constellation of stars. 'Seven Sisters' is just one name given to this grouping; across the globe, origin stories have been passed from generation to generation. Alberta’s work acknowledges the rupture and loss of indigenous knowledge and language caused by forced migration and enslavement. Throughout time, the night sky has been used as a tool for navigation. A wiggle in the universe: Seven Sisters I perhaps offers a guide to reimagine the stories of the ancestors as they whisper.
Palavar reflects on the complex negotiation involved in confronting and finding the language to speak about painful events of the past. Alberta found the cow’s jawbone at the site of the plantation where her ancestors had laboured. Assembled with a fragment of her clothing, and containing a bronze cast of her tongue, the sculpture forms a mouth, partially covered. The mask acts as a protective reminder of masquerade, to signify hope for a reunion with loved ones long passed.
Room 7: Entanglement is more than blood, 2022
Tapestry woven by Dovecot Studios
Cotton, linen, whaling rope, fishing rope, Venetian trading beads, children's hair clips, manillas, and cowrie shells; steel.
Alberta describes this work as a ‘portal’. It is woven with symbols representing stories of protest and care-giving, migration and transformation. The tapestry’s serpentine form evokes the deity Mami Wata (Mother Water), a powerful force in the spiritual lives of enslaved African people and their descendants. Originating in West African cultures, her continued presence throughout the Caribbean, Brazil and areas of the United States defies the outlawing and suppression of the belief systems of enslaved men and women during transatlantic chattel slavery.
The work also references extraction from the natural world through mining and trade. This is echoed in the form of the diamond and in the whaling rope incorporated into the weave. The structure on which the tapestry hangs might suggest a barrier or imprisonment – its colour mirrors the green found in government enclosures in Barbados.
Alberta says: ‘It becomes this entangled way of thinking about how we relate to each other’s histories, how we relate to each other through mythologies, but also its connection to climate change.’
Room 8: Lagareh – The Last Born, 2022
Colour video installation, with sound; steel, conch shell, cowrie shells and glass beads
The work is formally structured around the days of the week, and was shot at locations in Venice, London, Ayrshire, Sierra Leone and Barbados. Combining poetic sequences with documentary filmmaking, Alberta takes us on a journey through place and time, exploring the connections between these global locations, their histories and our current moment. The work addresses the devastating legacies of chattel slavery and the systems of racism that remain in our contemporary world.
Throughout the film, Alberta underlines the role of family bonds and compassion in resisting racism and anti-Blackness. Lagareh is a call to action – to find new ways of being in the world, inviting us not only to imagine, but to make real a future which places love at its centre.
Room 9: Dreamscapes for contemplation
Painting is a contemplative and soothing act for Alberta. We invite you to take a moment to pause with her paintings in this space.
Some of these works explore themes drawn from the artist’s family stories and photographs. Others express dreamscapes, with imagined figures in landscapes or watery settings. Alberta’s recent circular paintings are infused with mythology and mystery. She says, ‘they offer scope to imagine different futures, to imagine different knowledge – being open to things we don’t understand.’
Finding pleasure in the material qualities of paint is important for Alberta, even as she considers complex subjects. In Listening in the shadows for the call of the masquerade, a formal family portrait is set against a lush Barbadian environment. In works such as this, Alberta explores the pull to find safety in respectability and the counter desire to search for ancestral traditions embodied in the land.
Room 10: Taking a leap toward the ancestors
With open arms, the figures in these works are symbols of protection and guidance. The imagery and materials – such as raffia clothing – reference performance and the culture of Caribbean carnival, tuk bands and masquerades. These traditions often fused together elements from indigenous, West African, and some aspects of European culture.
Alberta studied tapestry at Edinburgh College of Art; textiles and textile art hold a special place in her work. Featuring imagery of water, birds, and masks, she created the woven backdrops in these works using a tufting tool. Over this she has collaged fabrics taken from her family archive, including fragments from a pillowcase and a gingham tablecloth sourced during a family visit to Suriname in South America.
In her first performance to camera in 2017, Alberta wore the hoody that features in Tracing shadows among the crows. Its presence in this work points to the performative elements which play a central role in her practice.
Room 12: A portal for breathing love into the Elders or an Adoration for kith-folk who we long for, 2021
Audio, chair, bandanas, calabash, Barbadian monkey pot, snake plants, plastic tubs, machete, cowrie shells, conch shells, bells and other items
In creating this sacred space, Alberta has brought together objects of significance that suggest a ritual has taken place. We hear the voice of celebrated Barbadian writer Kamau Brathwaite reading his poem Kumina (2005), a meditation on loss and grief for loved ones. Brathwaite was a cherished friend to Alberta and her family. This work is a poignant homage to their kinship.
Alberta describes Brathwaite as ‘a creator of dangerous words’, taking risks to make his work. An academic and historian, Brathwaite was an influential thinker, living and working in the UK, USA and Ghana. His writing practice centred around the concept of ‘Nation Language’ – Brathwaite argued that Caribbean English is distinct, and he used his poetry to articulate the notion of national identity. Brathwaite wrote his poems to be spoken, drawing on the rhythms and patterns of African drumming and influenced by musical forms such as calypso, jazz and reggae.
Read a transcript of the poem Kumina (with thanks to Beverley Brathwaite for her permission to share this transcript).
Resource Room: embracing hope and building empathy
We invite you to spend time in the exhibition Resource Room (Room 11), inspired by the deeply thought-provoking work of Alberta Whittle. The room is designed for you to further explore the artist's unique vision and perspective. Alberta is motivated by the desire to use self-compassion and collective care as methods in confronting anti-Blackness. The Resource Room is an active space to reflect on these themes and to find out more about her research and ideas.
Whether you prefer a hands-on approach, visual aids, or reading, you’ll find a wealth of information and materials to support your journey into Alberta’s wider practice. Take your time, browse the books, and immerse yourself in a relaxed environment. From poetry building to collaborative weaving, we've put together a variety of resources for you to explore.
This text has been written by Aqsa Arif and Kate M. Wilcox, Scotland+Venice Professional Development Programme 2022.
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