Alberta Whittle create dangerously
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh 1 April – 7 January
The centrepiece of this exhibition by Barbadosborn Scottish artist Alberta Whittle is Lagareh – The Last Born (2022), a 43-minute film originally presented at the Scottish Pavilion as part of the 2022 Venice Biennale. Shot in London, Ayrshire, Sierra Leone, Barbados and Venice, it’s a delirious film-collage that flits between heavily stylised choreographic scenes shot in HD; iphone footage capturing moments of UK police coercion; meditations on landscape filmed by drone; and a glancing portrait of black queer parents-to-be. Lacing these moments together is a soundtrack of breathy vocals and echoing, metallic mbira notes, as well as a series of evocative textual sequences that culminate in a dirge as the names of victims of racist police violence in the UK are listed in the final scene of the film … Joy Gardner … Sarah Reed … Smiley Culture … Sheku Bayoh …
In the face of such horror, Whittle situates love and care at the centre of her artistic project. This is evident in a suite of watercolours inscribed in a satisfyingly crenulated handpainted script with messages such as ‘Fill your heart with hope’ and ‘Invest in love’, this second phrase also appearing in one of the textual sequences in Lagareh. The tender values of Whittle’s work have been translated into curatorial wall texts that encourage audiences to ‘pause’ in order to ‘immerse’ themselves in the spirit of ‘love, care and hope’ that permeates the exhibition. While I understand the logic and efficacy of Whittle’s radically compassionate approach, the tone of these wall texts is mawkish at points.
Thematising access and enclosure, oceanblue-green gate sculptures appear throughout the exhibition. One such work, Entanglement is more than blood (2022), is draped with a filigree tapestry depicting a writhing maze of half-hand, half-snake forms patterned with a diamond motif. Diamonds, like the whaling rope incorporated into the weave of the tapestry, recall processes of colonial extraction. Here, as elsewhere in the exhibition, Whittle places memory at the heart of her political project.
Lettering welded to the tapestry-adorned gate sculpture asks ‘What lies below’? We might take this as a question directed at Britain’s culture of colonial forgetting. But we might also reframe it as a question for Whittle’s artistic method. Create dangerously is an exhibition of lusciously symbolic political art, in contrast to much so-called research-based art grounded in the aggregation and display of information and data. While some might prefer the latter’s apparent facticity and rigour, plumbing the depths of her core themes in such a manner has never been a project Whittle centres in her art. And while I find myself struggling with some of the language used to frame this exhibition, encountering Whittle’s attempt to speak to history, memory and racial trauma in an affectively rich way that prioritises hope and healing over the perpetuation of conflict and pessimism is, nonetheless, an enlightening experience.