AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tate Britain awarded a Turner Prize bursary award to 10 artists, including Barbados-born artist Alberta Whittle, in place of the normal Turner Prize. She is a previous recipient of the Margaret Tait Award and this year also won the Frieze Artist Award for a zeitgeisty video work referencing contagion and COVID-19. During the latter part of 2020 she has been part of the Brighton Photoworks Festival (this links to some cool activities based around her work) and her work has also formed part of the group Here be Dragons show at Copperfield art gallery in south-east London (only until 30 October).

Whittle, born in 1980, divides her time between Barbados, Scotland and South Africa. Her work is inter-disciplinary, encompassing performance art, film, photography, digital collage techniques, and large-scale sculpture, and her deeply-researched works of art explore the diaspora experience, racism and the ‘erasure’ of the black experience, trauma, memory and environmental issues, in the context of post-colonialism.

Whittle grew up in Barbados but, struggling with chronic pain and fatigue owing to fibromyalgia, she moved to the UK city of Birmingham in her teens. Her experiences, according to an interview for Studio International, gave her a “new perspective on how race, history and access to healthcare and education are experienced and visualised here, in particular how denial of these links is not remembered“.

The Tate website noted that the judges were moved by an exhibition of Whittle’s work at Dundee Contemporary Arts, entitled How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth, which explored notions such as healing, writing and speech in the quest for personal freedom and self-actualization.

The exhibition included a video work, Between a Whisper and a Cry, which explores the apathy of British people to three years of devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean. The Arts Council website linked above notes that the work explores ideas of academic theorist Christina Sharpe, who has written that “Slavery suffuses our present-day environment in an afterlife called the weather.”

One room in the Dundee exhibition showed an apparently part-submerged, to-scale Barbadian Chattel House, brightly coloured and evoking memories of Whittle’s childhood. A Chattel House is a small, wooden mobile home that is often seen in working-class areas in Barbados, and the name goes back to the days of slavery, when people might have to construct homes that could be moved from one property to another, so that they could move with the work. The collapsed structure created by Whittle movingly alludes to the involuntary movement of people of colour across the Caribbean.

Whittle has been quoted as stating: “No one can find Barbados on a map, whereas everyone can find the UK. That level of inattention galvanises so much of my work“. More of her work, including collage, can be seen on the artist’s website.

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