FILING FOR COLONIALISM'S BANKRUPTCY
On the work of Alberta Whittle.
Bankruptcy represents a highly evasive feature of business activity when it comes to interpretation. In it, there are ups and downs of business cycles and genuine business failures but also strategies of readjustment. Colonialism hasn’t gone out of business yet, so Alberta Whittle settles her artworks in the disruption of its establishment to reclaim humanity.
With great sensibility, solicitude and, as she says, a “desire to manifest self-compassion and collective care as key methods in battling anti-blackness” the artist layers multiple elements of her multifaceted oeuvre, spanning film, sculpture, performance, photography, and digital collage, to create interactive installations. Through them, she conveys structural concerns such as inequality, race, postcolonial power, language and memories. They connect the dots between the places she frequents: the UK, Barbados and South Africa.
How are histories visualized?
The works illustrating the cover of this issue are from Whittles’ series Business As Usual (2017/18), which transformed into several new works over the course of the last years. In them, the body can be seen as a site of potential for transformation and resistance. With the energy of movement, the digital collages bring photography and painting together, using science fiction, decolonial knowledge and performative self-portraiture to rearrange histories and reimagine radical futures. The consideration of a variety of narratives in the collages attune us to the many ways of knowing. As the practice aligns a variety of perspectives and images, it hacks the constructed notion of a preconceived collective history, shedding light on a wealth of stories and overlooked experiences such as those of diaspora.
What Is It Like to Be Discovered?
Attending to the inscription of history on the present, the work in the centerfold of this issue - Secreting Myths - is part of Whittles interrogation of the publication 1492: What Is It Like to Be Discovered? (Small and Jaffe, 1992). It includes an adaptation of a series of 16th century engravings by the Belgian engraver and publisher Theodore de Bry, whose work illustrates the arrival of Columbus in the Americas, and European colonists’ brutal and unjust claims of a so-called “New World”. The central imagery in the prints, drawn from de Bry’s depictions, have been created with laser-engraved woodblocks, inverted and transposed, creating deliberately hard to read scenarios. Not only do they rephrase the historical prints but, through the process of cutting into and gradual removal of the wood, also evoke Whittle’s memories of the images known since childhood and the impermanence of humane living conditions.
Using an array of time-based processes, she juxtaposes a series of colour combinations from her childhood and colours drawn from her gallery recreation of a subsiding Barbadian Chattel house to interconnect narratives which create the background for the scene. The superimposed gold ink on the bodies of the invaders are saline traces left by African snails from her hometown. The golden snail trails remind of the imperial symbolism, its ideas of value, affluence, material wealth and prestige, and at the same time recall the transience all of Whittle’s works inhabit.
Eluding and erasing colonialist patterns in the everyday could eventually lead to vanquishing through systematic unwinding. Whittle’s way of playfully drawing attention away from rotten history gives to a colorful future, transformed with full awareness of the past. Due to pandemic screen time increase and the merging of the corporeal body and the virtual selfie blurring all boundaries between reality and technology, the figuration in both work series portrayed here offer haptic possibilities. They empower a craving for counter-narratives to finally commence in our collective mind.
This contribution is part of Issue 15: DECOLOMANIA, on art history, the history of politics, and the history of theory: all of them colonized and colonizing, much like our very selves.