Interview: Artist Alberta Whittle on her show for Glasgow International

With her Glasgow International show now available to view online, Alberta Whittle reflects on how the Tories’ “hostile environment” policy and their contempt for “unskilled” workers are now painfully out of tune with the times. Interview by Susan Mansfield

Alberta Whittle

This weekend, the art world should have been converging on Glasgow for the opening events of Glasgow International, the city’s biennial contemporary art festival. One highlight promised to be the unveiling of new work by artist Alberta Whittle, with a live performance by the city’s cross-cultural, all-female Joyous Choir, run by Maryhill Integration Network.

Now, with the festival postponed until 2021, a new version of Whittle’s film commission, Business as usual: hostile environment, re-edited in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, is part of a digital showcase on the GI website. And Whittle, self-isolating with her family in England, is talking to me on the screen, musing on how much the world can change in a few short weeks.

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She had been working for nearly a year on the GI project, a co-commission by the festival and Glasgow Sculpture Studios, with funding from Event Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters. As with much of Whittle’s work, the project examines colonial histories and cultural amnesia – in this case with particular reference to Glasgow and its canals – as well as connecting with multicultural communities in the city today. The voice, and its role in collective healing, was an important theme.

Now, she has been working flat-out to make a new version, which will include references to the independent report on the Windrush scandal – issued on 19 March and all but buried by the pandemic – and the risks affecting frontline NHS workers from migrant backgrounds. “That’s the thing with art, for me,” she says. “It’s really meant to reflect our times, and we’re now in a very different time, so the work has to reflect that.

“That idea of the hostile environment and how it’s becoming much more visible as the pandemic explodes is what is really preoccupying me right now. It’s brought up a lot of ideas around precarity and who is really at the front line, because the same NHS workers who come from ethnic minorities are now actually the first ones to die, yet their value has been completely denied. Dispensable, non-skilled, low-paid workers like cleaners are now absolutely at the front line and really, really important to tackling the pandemic and keeping people alive.

“It’s the same thing as in World War I and World War II, where Caribbean and African, South and East Asian workers were used for the war effort to keep Britain safe, and were then disposed of. If we think in terms of institutionalised racism, it’s about whose body is more disposable. The language which western governments have been using, from Trump to Boris Johnson, around ‘OK, well, we anticipate losing this number of people’ – who are those people going to be? Are they now just becoming collateral?”

Whittle is unusual among contemporary artists in making work which responds quickly to world events. Her 2018 film, Sorry not sorry, responded to the Windrush scandal and included footage of MP David Lammy’s impassioned speech to Parliament. In 2019, for her solo show at Dundee Contemporary Arts, which explored the racialised impacts of climate change, she made a new film in the weeks before opening responding to the impact of Hurricane Dorian on the Bahamas.

A graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, and of Glasgow School of Art’s famed MFA course, Whittle established herself internationally as a hard-working and prolific artist in a range of media, but it is only since 2019 that mainstream Scottish audiences have had a chance to see her work. Her solo show at DCA included the film, Between a whisper and a cry, made as a result of winning the Margaret Tait Award the previous year, and she also exhibited last year at Pig Rock Bothy at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and at Edinburgh Printmakers, even as developing political events made her work increasingly timely.

Born in Barbados to Scots-Barbadian parents, Whittle moved to the UK aged 13, in part to be treated for chronic health problems – a mix of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, from which she still suffers. Often forced to miss school, she turned to drawing, painting and making. “It’s always been such a part of my healing, so to try to share that with audiences, to think about how it can be transformative, is really important to me.”

Working in the UK and South Africa in 2013 and 2014, as Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter gained traction, her work became more political. “I remember seeing the ‘Go Home’ vans in operation [a controversial advertising campaign by the Conservative Government targeting illegal immigrants]. That was the start of the hostile environment. Those vans, more than anything, really shook me. Even with my privilege of having a British passport, and having no issues with my right to live and work in the UK, they were very frightening.

“It creates a real sense of fear in one’s identity as a black British person. I have a very personal relationship to the hostile environment and I don’t think I’m alone in wondering if it’s ever going to end. Will there be a moment where black and brown people are valued in this country in a lived way, and accepted?”

Yet, strong as Whittle’s feelings are, her work is rarely angry. It is driven by ideas of healing, of finding ways to live with difficult issues and move on. Her shows often include spaces to sit and reflect, and sometimes even hand-stitched quilts to wrap oneself in. “I think it’s really important because the ideas I’m looking at are really challenging, and that’s a big ask. I think, ethically, it’s not fair for me to cast people out, they must be held, even if it’s only for a very short period of time, in an environment which will allow them to take in these ideas.

“I came across this term ‘radical softness.’ I really believe in self compassion. Because I’ve encountered racism, I’ve encountered people discriminating against me, it can be difficult for me to remain soft. I have plenty of rage, but there is also that desire to understand and have compassion, because that’s part of how I heal.

“I consider myself really a maker and storyteller. I’m someone who wants to have conversations with my audiences. I think what people don’t always acknowledge is that, whether you’re white, black, brown or whatever, your idea of being human is affected by how you interact with a different human.

“It’s about discovering our own humanity, understanding it in a more nuanced way. So having these conversations is not something which is just for people of a marginalised background, they are conversations which need to happen with everyone.” ■

A digital programme of work from Glasgow International is live on www.glasgowinternational.org until 10 May including new work by Alberta Whittle, Liv Fontaine, Jenkin van Zyl, Yuko Mohri and existing work by artists including Georgina Starr and Sarah Forrest.