Reframing Colonial History: Alberta Whittle’s Woodblock Engravings.

Alberta Whittle

Alberta Whittle is a Barbadian artist, researcher, and curator. She was recently selected as one of ten artists to receive £10,000 as part of the Tate’s Turner bursary award. Out of all these selected artists, I found her to be one of the most intriguing and resonant. A full list of the selected artists and their work is detailed at the end.

How Flexible Can We Make The Mouth

Whittle’s creative practice is ‘motivated by the desire to work collectively towards radical self-love.’ She uses this notion of ‘radical self-love’, collective care and education as a means to confront anti-blackness. Her work involves constructing interactive installations using film, sculpture and performance.

An installation that really resonated with me when researching Whittle’s archive was How Flexible Can We Make The Mouth. In this exhibition for Dundee Contemporary Arts, Whittle uses printmaking, poetry, film and scuplture to reflect on the memory, trauma and tensions between land and sea. Whittle’s work questions the accepted Western historical and social narratives surrounding colonialism and seeks to undermine the authority of postcolonial power, reinventing the narrative and confronting uncomfortable truths.

Featured in the exhibition is the adaptation of a series of 16th century engravings by Theodore de Bry, whose artwork depicts the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. In the original engravings, the brutal colonisation of the so-called ‘New World’ is presented through a European lens. Whittle challenges this presentation and in her adaptation of the original, she includes golden forms embossed over the colonisers bodies. The shimmering trails allude to the invasive African snails found in her home town and refram the colonisers in Bry’s work as an invasive and unwelcomed force. They also recall the concepts of ‘slippage’ and transience found in the artist’s other works at the exhibition.

The adapted engraved woodblocks are confusing, unpolished and dificult to make out. The ambiguity is a deliberate metaphor for the questionable ‘polished’ narrative presented in the original colonialist work. Whittle is questioning an accepted Western colonial story, subverting it and asking us to look at de Bry’s work through a different lens.

In an interview with DCA, Whittle explains the reason she chooses specific works from the de Bry’s series. She uses works where indigenous people are depicted as lazy and idle. This was a common depiction during colonial times, as it helped support the idea that people of colour were lazy, unproductive and in need of ‘civilisation’. It was used as a means to justify the eradication of non-western culture. Whittle talks about this depiction in more detail:

‘In reflecting on these images, it was really important to me to bring them up to date… I thought it would be really useful for the audience to actually see one of the woodblocks and so the one I chose was an image of Columbus encountering an indigenous woman while she’s in a hammock. And one of the reasons for that is to think about the expectations of indigenous people or of people of colour as being lazy and being unproductive…. and this is really a myth that has been clung to in these narratives of colonialism, as if it was somehow good for indigenous people to bring them supposed “civilisation”.’

Alberta Whittle, 2019

In the full interview below she covers her use of film and towards the end challenges the western response to hurricane season – in particular, the instance in September 2019 where 130 Bahamian hurricane evacuees were denied refuge in Florida for not having US visas. Whittle’s way of articulating her ideas is engaging and I urge you to watch the full interview.

Recent Works

Whittle’s most recent work from February 2020, No Mudder Country Here, was a site specific commission inspired by her feelings on the 2018 Windrush Scandal. On the side of a former canal office in Birmingham, a hand-painted billboard shows the words ‘In a hostile environment, respectability will not save you’:

The blue and pink background hues allude to some of the dancehall aesthetics Whittle grew up with in the Caribbean.

This idea of ‘the hostile environment’ has occupied Whittle for some time, fuelled by the Windrush scandal in 2018. Coming from a migrant background, she gives an insightful look at the pressures people of colour face in the UK. Specifically the pressure to culturally assimilate while also finding a way to ‘resist detection’ to maintain a sense of safety. In the interview listed below, she notes that as the hostile environment comes to the fore, the issue of safety feels more pressing.

On the billboard, the word ‘host’ is in white, alluding to the racial politics of cultural assimilation in the UK. For many, there is the feeling that in becoming closer to white culture, it is easier to resist detection and maintain a sense of safety. A short interview on No Mudder Country Here:

Alberta Whittle continues to choreograph politically relevant and educational art that draws on her experiences as a woman of colour and confronts issues of race, identity, history and culture. For a comprehensive look at Whittle’s entire collection, I recommend visiting her website and exploring the archive. Whittle is a well-deserved winner of the Turner Bursary and I look forward to seeing her future projects.

Full list of selected artists for the Tate Turner bursary award:

Imran Perretta
the destructors 2019
Shawanda Corbett
Neighbourhood Garden 2020
Alberta Whittle
How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth 2019
Jamie Crewe
‘The Ideal Bar’ – ‘Le Narcisse’ – ‘Alec’s’ 2020
Ima-Abasi Okon
Infinite Slippage: nonRepugnant Insolvencies T!-a!-r!-r!-y!-i!-n!-g! as Hand Claps of M’s Hard’Loved’Flesh [I’M irreducibly-undone because] —Quantum Leanage-Complex-Dub 2019
Sidsel Meineche Hansen
End-Used City, 2019
Boychild, Untitled Hand Dance, at Arika’s Episode 10: A Means Without End 2019⁣
Oreet Ahery
Revisiting Genesis 2016
Sean Edwards
Undo Things Done (Wales in Venice) 2019
Liz Johnson Arthur
If you know the beginning, the end is no trouble 2019