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Alberta Whittle, Lagareh, “The Last Born” (2022)
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

Why artist Alberta Whittle is imploring us to ‘invest in love’

The artist reveals the motivation behind the new exhibition representing Scotland at this year’s Venice Biennale

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.

“Memory is a really important point in my research. I think we’re in the state of the luxury of amnesia” – Alberta Whittle 

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. 

I love how you begin the film with that really tender conversation between two women expecting a baby and talking about their plans to create a loving home. I feel like that conversation crystallises a lot of themes of what comes after.

Alberta Whittle: There’s something so radical about seeing these two Black, queer women talking about building a family, especially in Italy, which is such a Catholic country. They’re literally birthing this family, they’re thinking about the choices they’re going to make to make a loving home. That act of hope is so powerful as like a refusal against patriarchy, a refusal against queerphobia, a refusal against racism. It’s true resistance when you find love and you go for it, and you just build something that suits you and the family you want. That is just incredibly powerful.

Please could you tell us a bit about this idea of ‘investing in love’?

Alberta Whittle: I want there to be this reminder for the audience that is the most important thing that we can really focus on. For me, the thing I worry so much about is that we just allow ourselves to fall into numbness and just accept things as they are, stop being hopeful, and stop fighting. 

The scene on Bunce Island in which the wonderful Dr Isatu Smith takes us on a tour of the unmarked slave burial ground is so moving...

Alberta Whittle: Dr Smith is an incredible storyteller and we have to acknowledge that’s a huge gift but, in some ways, it’s also a burden to share this knowledge, you know. What does she choose to share? How does she choose to deliver it? That’s why that particular chapter is called The Burden of Proof

But I’m also really trying to create these moments where we are being tended to ourselves, and ways in which I can offer care to the audience. For instance, there’s a pile of blankets there... my mum made one of them for my 30th birthday. And the two knitted blankets — one of my best friend’s granny made them just before she passed on. They’re there to provide people with energy and women’s handiwork that can just encourage the body to really take in these ideas and for people to feel they’re being held briefly. 

“We are very much in danger of empathy fatigue, but I still think our humanity is available to us” – Alberta Whittle

Which comes back again to the capacity of physical objects and space to really contain ideas and memory and act as a conduit of those forces.

Alberta Whittle: Absolutely. I really deliberately decided to use particular objects or materials that have been important to me in my life… I really wanted them there to punctuate the exhibition in terms of thinking about these relationships of family and community, and reminding us of the power but also the preciousness of these links. 

We are very much in danger of empathy fatigue, but I still think our humanity is available to us. There’s something really terrible when you just hear numbers of people who’ve been lost. When we were deep in the pandemic and I was seeing those numbers coming in, I was terrified, and I found myself stealing myself against these numbers. And I felt as though we need to have these names, we need to understand that everyone who was lost was someone’s child, someone’s uncle, auntie, granny, grandpa. And it’s about humanising these numbers. I say ‘catastrophe’ a lot but I really mean it quite deliberately. There is a catastrophe to those times. 

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.

It is very hypnotic. I felt the pace of the film was like water – like waves washing over me, sometimes lapping gently and sometimes crashing...

Alberta Whittle: And it’s a really stormy soundtrack as well. The soundtrack is such a big part of the film. It’s a gorgeous score composed by two really good friends, Richy Carey and Matthew Arthur Williams. I wanted there to be this sense of the stories that the water tells us, but also stories around different musical traditions, as well as sensory moments that really relate to nature. By the time we get to Friday [a later act in the film], we’re in the storm and it’s meant to bring the audience along with us, but also give them a little shake. We all need that little shake from time to time because it can be really easy to get lost in the image and film is such a seductive medium. 

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. 

“We have to remain active. We have to continue thinking about love and remain hopeful” – Alberta Whittle 

You describe this exhibition as a kind of journey bringing people to this emotional landing point. As they are sat here reflecting on what they experienced inside, what would you most hope that they're feeling?

Alberta Whittle: The last thing I want people to feel is traumatised. But I think the first thing I want people to think of is how they understand themselves in relation to these histories. I want them to think about what they need to unlearn. It’s really, for me, about maintaining curiosity and trying to find ways to listen better to each other, and build community better and on terms that are more equitable, that are fairer. 

The film also contains explicit calls to action – a direct call to withdraw consent from the police and to unlearn the lessons of white supremacy. I suppose those are the moments where you want people to kind of shake people awake? 

Alberta Whittle: I get that people are really exhausted, I think we’re all fighting exhaustion, and we’re all really struggling with overproduction. Frankly, I think there’s a real sense the pressure of that, but I think we need to re-orientate ourselves in terms of thinking about what decisions can we make that really mean that the police actually change how they function? Or can we find new ways of looking after each other that aren't so punitive? 

We have to remain active. We have to continue thinking about love and remain hopeful. Because that’s what’s going to protect the next generation, protect the rights of our friends, our family, and our community. 

Alberta Whittle’s deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory is presented at the Docks Cantieri Cucchini, S. Pietro di Castello, 40, 30122 as part of this year’s Venice Biennale, until November 27 2022