In Conversation with Alberta Whittle

Artistic Work as a Form of Healing

The artist from Barbados addresses colonial history and traumas, searching for dialogues and compassionate interactions. We spoke with Alberta Whittle about the need for collective healing, frightening legacies and the Caribbean artistic scene.

C&AL: How does your origin and upbringing nourish your work?

AW: I’ll tell you two stories. The first story is that my parents had a membership for the Barbados Museum & Historical Society, so as a child we would go there often. I remember being in one of the rooms, and there was a family of British tourists. Their two sons kept asking “Why do we have to look at this history? It has nothing to do with me.” The second story is that shortly after I arrived to the UK as a child, Steven Lawrence was murdered. [Editor’s note: Lawrence was a black British teenager from South East London, who was murdered in a racially motivated attack while waiting for a bus on April 22, 1993.]

These two instances happened within a year of each other and they had a big impact on me. The first story made me realise that there is a sense of alienation and ambivalence from Britain towards the brutal history between Europe and the Caribbean, and this relationship represented in the Museum in Barbados was perceived by this family as having nothing to do with them. Slavery, colonialism and even the lives of black people: this had nothing to do with their everyday. When I moved to the UK, I realised that there was no knowledge, no history being taught about what happened during the British Empire in the Caribbean or in the Commonwealth. I found that quite frightening. I realised that my life and my history was so unimportant in the UK.

With the loss of Steven Lawrence and a system that supported the erasure of his life, I learnt that black lives and black death meant nothing. A lot of the reasons why I make my work are a response to the terror that my life may not matter, and that my history is disposable.

C&AL: What are your strategies to make past stories/histories relatable to the present day?

AW: I think past and present stories are interrelated. If you look at the speech by David Lammy in my piece Sorry, Not Sorry (2018), he is talking about events that happened three hundred years ago and insisting that they are connected to how we understand our conditions today. If you look at the untold story of the Windrush generation that is just now being revealed by the press, we discover how the British Government had not fully prepared for these Caribbean British citizens to come to the UK nor did they welcome them. The British Nationality Act was not for black or People of Color; it was for white people wanting to be able to move more easily across the Commonwealth. All this is connected to how we understand the Other and how the Other is read, which is related to histories of colonialism and slavery. This significantly impacts the ways certain bodies and certain histories are consistently rendered disposable.

C&AL: Do you know of any art events in the Caribbean that help shaping up a “Caribbean art scene”?

AW: I am particularly aware of the initiatives in the Anglophone Caribbean. For instance, Alice Yard, initiated by Chris Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin and Sean Leonard in Trinidad; Fresh Milk in Barbados, founded by Annalee Davis, fosters conversations across the Diaspora between local and international artists. Davis, alongside Holly Bynoe, created the Tilting Axis research project, a moveable gathering that travels with the intention of opening up networks. There have been other movements such as Carifesta, which began in the early 1980s and travels across the Caribbean every two years, although there have been a few times that it has been delayed because of lack of money or environmental issues. These gatherings span everything within Caribbean creativity, from dance and performance, to visual arts, crafts, and literature.

C&AL: Is there a sense of Caribbean artist identity?

AW: Yes definitely, the depth and sprawl of important research that has been happening in the Caribbean has been gaining greater traction internationally and we are beginning to see support from international museums and institutions, and especially financial patronage for artists living outside of the Caribbean. If there is an opportunity abroad, most artists will probably take the chance to be elsewhere; however, there are people making big commitments to stay and work locally, which I think is laudable.

Interview by Raquel Villar-Pérez, Spanish art curator and art writer based in London.