Published  05/09/2020

Alberta Whittle – interview: ‘No one can find Barbados on a map, whereas everyone can find the UK. That level of inattention galvanises so much of my work ’

Alberta Whittle – interview: ‘No one can find Barbados on a map, whereas everyone can find the UK. That level of inattention galvanises so much of my work ’

The artist talks about the erasure of black people in everyday society, and how this informs and motivates her to challenge herself, and her audience, with her filmic and performative installations

Alberta Whittle. Photo: Matthew A Williams, 2019.


Alberta Whittle (b1980, Barbados) has had a phenomenal couple of years. The Glasgow-based artist, who works in film, sculpture, performance, collage and choreographed installation, was the recipient of the 2018-19 Margaret Tait Award and, this year, was one of the 10 artists to receive a Turner bursary award from Tate Britain, in place of the annual Turner Prize. She is about to show work in the Photoworks Festival in Brighton and in a group show at Copperfield in south-east London.

Alberta Whittle, HOLDING THE LINE. Film still. © the artist.

The Liverpool Biennial and Art Night have been postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, giving Whittle a little longer to finesse her works for these events, but equally raising new challenges as to how to adapt to the restrictions and changes in the way she can interact with her audience – something which, for Whittle, is key, since she seeks to pose questions and unsettle people from their positions of privilege and passivity. Key themes in her work include anti-blackness, legacies of slavery and apartheid, the erasure of black people and people of colour in everyday society, and also environmental issues.

Whittle spoke to Studio International about her practice and motivations, the effect of the pandemic, and the role of viscerality in her work.

Anna McNay: How would you describe yourself as an artist? You work across mediums, choreographing interactive installations, using film, sculpture and performance as site-specific artworks in public and private spaces. What do you think of as your primary medium?

Alberta Whittle: It’s really difficult to respond accurately to that. I’m someone who loves working with my hands and, in some ways, being led by materials, images and the different connotations they conjure. I think about my work through the lens of sculpture, thinking about the scale, feelings and textures, and I often have that very immediate, visceral response to materials. I always do a lot of background research, and I feel as though, sometimes, when I’m working through different ideas, the ideas themselves can almost lead me into understanding how they might need to manifest into some kind of physical or experiential realm. It’s almost as though the materials allow me to create these different worlds or figure out what kind of stories I want to tell. When you put these things together – whether it’s in an immersive installation, a film that’s going to be screened in a cinema, or some kind of performance – I hope that audiences receive my work as an invitation, and sometimes demand, to respond to ideas in a way in which they might not have done before. So, for me, it’s really about creating these worlds where stories and passions can come up from the audience.

Alberta Whittle, HOLDING THE LINE. Film still. © the artist.

AMc: It sounds as if the research is an integral part of your practice.

AW: My research is really important, in particular how we can map power through different geographies. I grew up in Barbados and spent nearly all my childhood there. I moved to Birmingham when I was a teenager, because I was struggling to get a diagnosis for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. I was missing a lot of school due to pain and suffering from exhaustion, but was increasingly aware of how my difference was visualised in this new context. These experiences galvanised 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.

Alberta Whittle, Celestial Mediations II, 2017. © the artist.

My practice-based research is anchored around The Luxury of Amnesia, a term that chronicles how the suppression and disfigurement of memory in the aftermath of slavery anchors the hostile environment. This term intends to do more than link amnesia with colonial histories, it signifies the all-encompassing gagging of black life. This structural antagonism between the hostile environment and the radical creative work that insists on refusing the position of the non-humxn is at the core of my thinking.

Contending against abjection, my practice-led research is located in Scotland, but draws from transnational sources to bring together an enquiry into how activist creative strategies can energise self-compassion and healing for artists and audiences through encouraging processes of active remembering. My research examines archives, but also considers memory work through thinking about the stories I’ve heard my relatives telling, and things I’ve witnessed since I was a little girl.

Alberta Whittle, business as usual : hostile environment, 2020. © the artist.

I speak to friends, and, sometimes, if I’m really lucky, friends end up being collaborators, or family members might end up being collaborators, and that is also a means for me to understand the research in a way that is less focused on my individual relationship to these ideas of capitalism and race and brings up more nuances. It opens things up and, in some ways, it also speaks of my own power in those relationships, my privilege in terms of making, and how I’m working through these different subjectivities, perspectives and histories. They’re very entangled, but it does give me a very entrenched sense of responsibility for the work and how I represent them. It keeps me in check, through opening up the research, so it’s not just something that occupies a space in academia. It’s also very much informed by these different dialogues, conversations and sometimes just gossip sessions with friends and loved ones. So much can come from these.

AMc: As you say, you were born in Barbados and moved to Birmingham, and you studied in Glasgow, where you are still based part of the time, but you are also a research associate at the University of Johannesburg. How do you split your time?

AW: Well, I lived with my dad’s family in Birmingham, but because my parents and all my extended family live in Barbados, I was back and forth when possible for Christmas, etc. It’s always been a big part of my life, travelling between these two different worlds. I’m still very much based in Glasgow, and I’ve spent all my adult life in Scotland, so it’s a really big part of me. I think that’s why I have so many questions related to the entanglements of race and capitalism and memory, because I was really quite shocked, moving to the UK, going to school in Birmingham, and living and studying in Scotland, by how there was an acute absence of conversation or acknowledgment in terms of these intricate and uneasy relationships between Europe and the Americas, or Asia, or Africa. That really surprised me because, growing up in the Caribbean, there’s a very heightened understanding of these relationships. It is impossible to avoid. The privilege in avoiding these histories is something I found shocking and, I guess, hurtful. Living in the UK, the Caribbean becomes this place of the imaginary. It’s not somewhere that people know anything about, apart from to assume it’s tropical, a place of holiday, of Bob Marley, you know. No one can find Barbados on a map, whereas everyone can find the UK. That level of inattention definitely galvanises so much of my work.

Alberta Whittle, business as usual : hostile environment, 2020. © the artist.

After I finished my master’s, I was accepted on a residency in Cape Town. Being there raised so many further questions because of the relatively recent past of apartheid. The legacy of oppression is still apparent, but there is also this strange pledge to move forward even though access to wealth and power is still very racialised. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an interesting example. In spite of pledges to look at the past, and talk through these histories in a public way, there is not necessarily an attempt to atone for them. It looks at why these different structures of oppression were in place, how that affected the majority of that population, and what the legacy of this is. I found that research on memory, complicity and innocence compelling because access to that kind of decolonial research simply wasn’t available in Scotland. It wasn’t really happening in England either. I was also in South Africa around the time of the call for decolonisation of public institutions, so it was an incredibly significant place for me to be. That was where my understanding of race and racial difference was really founded, in fact, because, as a little girl, I used to watch the news with my parents, and you would see these images of the struggles of apartheid. This is when the conversations about race first started in my family. I was very small – maybe just three or four years old. So, going to this place, which occupied this hidden space of my memory, which I hadn’t really thought about in any real way, suddenly led to all these layers unfolding without any warning. I realised there was quite a lot of unresolved work that I needed to do, and being in South Africa was really going to be a big part of that. I have built some very strong relationships with different artists and collaborators there, and I owe much of my research to my experiences and time with them.

AMc: You have already touched on quite a few concerns that recur in your work, but what would you say is its core message, if it has one, or what are the key themes that you work with?

AW: It’s very difficult to choose one particular preoccupation, because I think these issues of capitalism and race and the afterlife of slavery are really so significantly related to the hostile environment, but also to what’s happening with the pandemic, and the different protests for #BlackLivesMatter. With all of those concerns, it’s very hard not to think about failure in some way. There has been a long, exhausting history of oppression, and institutions have really failed to acknowledge this, and the impossibility of survival for people who may not be valued or may be rendered collateral within these systems. For instance, a lot of my work from last year looked at the idea of Caribbean people being rendered collateral through the Windrush debacle. In my family, different family members on my mum’s side travelled to the UK to be nurses, and my grandfather was also in the UK studying, but, interestingly, none of them stayed. They were part of that Windrush generation, they could have stayed. It could be them now going through the risk of deportation. So, I started thinking about how people can be erased. It’s a really terrifying prospect and working through these different issues brings up a lot of grief, a lot of fear, and a lot of rage. These are the things that trouble my practice and insist that I ask these difficult questions.

Alberta Whittle, Amazing Grace, collage series, 2020. © the artist.

I think that we have to persist in asking these difficult questions on black survival, even though they have continuously been asked for generations. This is not the first time there have been protests because of racial unrest, because of police violence, because of unfair systems. Just over a hundred years ago, in 1919, there were race riots in the port cities in the UK because of this fear of difference, and it’s very hard to really think: “Well, we’ve been here before, so how do we galvanise people, who may be in a position of privilege, to actually want to be part of change?” Emotional passivity, that’s what stops things from moving forward.

AMc: Picking up on you mentioning the grief you feel when making your work, how does this affect you long-term? Is it something you process while producing that specific piece – a form of catharsis, if you like – or does it stay with you after the work is finished?

AW: It’s a bit of both. When I’m making the work, there is grief, rage and sadness. It’s a really agonising position to be in, looking at all these different materials. When the protests were happening in June, my dad shared an article with me that said doctors were advising there should be a health warning for pregnant mothers watching the footage of George Floyd because it could induce a miscarriage. I think about that a lot because there is a sense that we’re really prepared to accept the visualisation of black trauma or black pain, and I think the way in which that can affect the body and create exhaustion, affect people’s mental and physical health, and induce feelings of distress is really taken for granted. I’m quite an intense worker. When I’m working on my films, or when I’m making something, I’m really ridiculously obsessive. I can get into that zone, and all I want to do is work, and I find it very helpful in terms of how it allows me to process things in a way in which I can feel release through the making; I can experience the making as a transformative process. But, afterwards, I’m exhausted – probably a combination of the fibromyalgia and the intensive working periods. I’ve been trying to think about self-compassion as a practice within my work so that I can nurture myself through my work and potentially encourage audiences to develop self-compassion.

Alberta Whittle, business as usual : hostile environment, 2020. © the artist.

AMc: You frequently speak of battling “anti-blackness”. Is it important to you to define this as something specific and separate from racism per se?

AW: Yes. For me, it’s important that anti-blackness is really spotlighted within racism. Racism, in some ways, can diminish the menace of anti-blackness, which doesn’t recognise the humanity of black people. That’s why the police felt emboldened to murder George Floyd, why the arrest of Simeon Francis in 2020 and his death in a police cell in the UK is now having to be investigated. In terms of thinking about how anti-blackness is at the root of their deaths, it’s really linked to how slavery is related to blackness, and this still defines how we understand humanity, how we understand race. When people are racialised as black, this position can mean that black people won’t receive the same treatment from the police, from teachers, from healthcare professionals. Conversely, if you’ve been racialised as white, the abjectness of blackness then reinforces whiteness as human. I lived an example of this when I went with my white friend to the GP. We were both struggling terribly with the flu. She went in before me, and the doctor sent her on her way really quickly with paracetamol. I was questioned about my sexual history and was told I should get an HIV test. Somehow my body was read as contagious, it’s a threat. My friend’s body, conversely, is deserving of care, and she’s not to blame for her sickness. We had the exact same symptoms, and yet it was being suggested that my sexual activity might have led to my having HIV, when all I had was the flu. So, for me, anti-blackness really needs to be highlighted because it can be absorbed within racism. The treatment of people of Asian descent, or people from different racialised positions, is different from blackness. It’s also important for me to highlight that, as a light-skinned woman, I also receive privileges through colourism. That’s just a fact.

AMc: Listening to this is like a punch in the stomach. Your performance work, too – even the written descriptions of it – is incredibly visceral. Do you see art as an inherently visceral thing? Has it failed if it doesn’t deliver that punch effect to its audience?

AW: I can only really speak about my own work, and, where possible, I hope that it can be simultaneously a gesture of rage, but also of compassion towards agonies and joys. It binds my different communities, and I always think about Fannie Lou Hamer, who famously said that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired. That really resonates today when we see people on the frontline, in very precarious positions, whether it’s because of their geography or their subjectivity, how they’re encountering discrimination, but still fighting for their lives against a system that’s not interested in their survival. I do hope, and this is a really big hope, that I can encourage or demand change through touching people with my work, so that they can rest and heal, but also sit with these difficult questions. I think an overarching theme in my work is about reckoning. How can I, as an artist, encourage or challenge audiences to break with passivity? The moment when people start to feel comfortable with their own passivity, that troubles me in my work. It troubles me in my performances. I’m genuinely afraid of the emotional paralysis that allows us to deny people’s humanity and allows oneself to not be directly affected or hurt by people losing their lives. For the first time, now, everyone is in a situation of anticipatory grief. But, still, if you’re in a privileged position, you can remain quite immune to this.

AMc: Do you see your work as a form of activism, then?

AW: I think so. I don’t think when I first started making work that was necessarily something at the forefront of my mind. I think, as I mentioned earlier when I was talking about that move from Barbados to Birmingham to Scotland, I was really making work about the confusion of not being seen, or the potential for my presence to be erased so much in public, which I found quite shocking, because I hadn’t been socialised in the UK. This wasn’t something that was normal to me. Growing up in the Caribbean, I could see images of people that looked like me everywhere. I probably took that for granted and it really surprised me seeing how erasure and amnesia operated in the UK.

Alberta Whittle, HOLDING THE LINE. Film still. © the artist.

AMc: Writing is key to your work, and the texts you produce are often intended to be read aloud, relating back to the oral traditions you grew up with. As a writer myself, I’m curious as to how you go about composing such a text. Do you speak it first, or as you’re putting it down on paper (or screen)?

AW: I tend to, because I’m dyslexic. If I’m trying to write a poem, or figure out titles for my work, or even when I’m working through the concepts that are built into my work, I tend to write everything out, but then also draw some of the letters. Then I’ll read them aloud so that I can figure out the pacing. Sometimes I forget to breathe, and I think about that often. Who has the privilege to breathe easily without really thinking about it, especially now that we’re in this situation with Covid, where people are literally fighting for breath. I was told once that when you’re struggling to breathe for no physical reason, it’s about sitting in this state of fight or flight. I’m really preoccupied by what it is I’m holding in my body, what tension I’m holding in my body, which means that I’m in fight or flight mode, and that I have to really thoughtfully and actively take the time to breathe. So, when I’m writing these things out, I have to read them aloud, otherwise they just don’t make sense. It’s also part of my remembering and deciding what’s really important.

Again, conversations with friends and loved ones are really important for me, and the significance of hearing those stories, rather than necessarily reading them. There is something very much built into me whereby I need to hear things read aloud anyway, probably because of the oral traditions I encountered while growing up in the Caribbean. But it is also about hearing the words out loud. That in itself creates a very strong liveness, which relates to ideas of witnessing and of taking up space, even in an ephemeral way. Obviously, written text does that as well, but there’s something about fusing that physical presence with memory in a very active, live way, which I prefer in my work. I also invite audiences to read my work aloud. I write scores for them, and that can be one way of creating a tension between being viewed, or being witnessed, and taking up that space and being listened to – or not being listened to.

AMc: I know the punctuation is significant to you, as well, as a signifier of shifts in breath and breathing.

AW: Absolutely. The two really go hand in hand. As I started performing more, I realised I needed to give myself time to breathe, to break, to rest in the midst of the performance, because my body can really play tricks on me because of the fibromyalgia. So, when I am scripting things, I think a lot about how I can prioritise certain stresses or words through punctuation.

AMc: Again, this seems to come back to viscerality …

AW: Definitely.

AMc: You have had a really crazy couple of years by the looks of things.

AW: Oh, my God, it’s been insane, so insane.

Alberta Whittle, between a whisper and a cry, 2019. © the artist.

AMc: It seems as if it all started when you were made the 2018-19 recipient of the Margaret Tait Award, with which you made between a whisper and a cry. In an interview with Lux [the award is a Lux Scotland commission], you said that the award enabled you to work properly with others for the first time, rather than alone in your bedroom. Do you feel your practice has changed or developed a lot in the past couple of years?

AW: Yes, it was such a huge shock. I was not expecting it. I was absolutely not expecting it at all. It meant so much to me personally and professionally. After working for so long without a studio, unless I was on residency somewhere, it gave me a huge boost in confidence to receive the support and also the encouragement to be very ambitious in my work. Because of that institutional support, I could access locations and get a lot of advice and feedback. People were able to support me with making the work, and that’s such a gift. Crucially, it also meant I was able to pay my collaborators for their time, their knowledge and their labour. And this meant so much to me because I’ve got a wonderful community of friends and loved ones and family who all help me with my work, whether it’s driving me somewhere to go and film something, or lending me a camera, whatever. It was really fantastic that people could be paid properly and have their time and energy and knowledge valued appropriately. After making between a whisper and a cry, and on the back of the Margaret Tait Award, I was invited to have a solo show at Dundee Contemporary Arts. I made another film for this, from the forest to the concrete to the forest, which responded to the devastation from Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, which happened just before the show opened. Again, it was very live responding to this awful devastation and the loss of so many lives. So, yes, the award really changed my life.

Alberta Whittle, between a whisper and a cry, 2019. © the artist.

AMc: This year, you are one of the 10 artists to receive a Turner Prize 2020 bursary award from Tate Britain in place of the Turner Prize. What does this mean for you?

AW: This was another big surprise, and one of the best things about the award is that it gives me more freedom as there’s no specific outcome attached. I don’t have to produce anything. It is about putting support in place to protect and nurture my practice. I’m hoping to put the money towards renting a studio long-term and buying some equipment to help me maintain my commitment to taking risks and continuing to be ambitious in the work that I want to keep on making.
AMc: You have a couple of projects coming up in September. First, you are one of a number of artists participating in the inaugural Photoworks Festival in Brighton, which people will be able to experience via a printed “festival in a box”, online in a digital festival hub and through outdoor exhibitions on billboards across Brighton and Hove. What can you share about the work that you will include in the festival, and how, if at all, have you had to adapt it to suit these means of sharing?

AW: The Photoworks team has been really great – so sensitive to the current climate, yet very persistent in reimagining how this festival can come into being, giving audiences time and space to safely participate in the different works. I feel really lucky that I’m in such a great cohort of artists.

I work quite a lot with collage. For me, it is a really useful way of looking at these entanglements, or thinking about ideas of hospitality for ghosts, because it allows for different meeting points and perspectives, and for the suggestion of something beneath the surface, or of things not being quite what they seem.

It’s been really interesting to think about what work would respond best to these different spaces and ways of being looked at through the Photoworks project. I haven’t had to really change anything, but I’m showing two series for the festival. The first is business as usual, which is an ongoing series I’ve been working on for a few years, which responds to a determined ambivalence towards trauma, climate catastrophe and histories of power and oppression. The second is a new series that’s still growing, called amazing grace, and, unlike business as usual, where many of the images were taken in different geographies and encounters, the collage from amazing grace was made at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow.

Alberta Whittle, Amazing Grace, collage series, 2020. © the artist.

GoMA’s building used to be a tobacco merchant’s house, and it was also the Royal Exchange, so it’s a site that’s deeply rooted in capitalism. Within my practice, I often respond to the history of particular sites and buildings, and these spaces become really important as a means of working against active forgetting. When these buildings or spaces become repurposed, memories can be lost. I love Fred D’Aguiar’s poetry and writing and have found it so useful in terms of how to contest erasure. He speaks a lot about giving hospitality to ghosts, as in histories and the people who are not mentioned in archives, those who are forgotten and our relationship to forgetting them. His work poetically resuscitates them and offers a space for these forgotten encounters to become live again. I was lucky enough to make some images when the gallery was in between shows, and it’s really quite an incredible space, especially when it’s empty, because it’s absolutely immense, and there is a very powerful aura of lingering ghosts. There are so many layers suggested by hauntings in this architecture, and it feels as though there are a lot of stories that are trying to be told through the building. I’m hoping that this new series, amazing grace, can open things up a bit and ask questions of these spaces and their gatekeepers.

Alberta Whittle, Mammmmmmmmywata Presents Life Solutions International, 2016. Film still. © the artist.

AMc: Also in September, you will be taking part in a group show at Copperfield in south-east London, proposing a process of unlearning the way we conceptualise space, rethinking it from an ocean-based perspective, which embraces a relational understanding of the sea and celebrates its complexity as an indivisible entity in constant transformation. Will the work shown here be a new work, or did you get asked to show something pre-existing?

AW: The gallery approached me about an existing work that’s on my website, Mammmmmmmmywata Presents Life Solutions International. A very long title! This film, like many of my films, is built around the idea that the sea is simultaneously a waterway, a crucible for knowledge, a place of torture, a graveyard, a place of healing, a place to forge new communities. Its multiple significations become an unstable terrain because of the wateriness or wetness. Like histories and contestations, they can be absorbed, or they can sink. But they are simultaneously held in the water, in waterways. I grew up near the ocean. I longed for it when I moved to the UK. Birmingham is about as far away from the ocean as you can possibly get! It’s been interesting to think about this film and have a bit of space to reflect on what that work means and the time period when I was making it. When I was making the film, I was really trying to think about what questions artists can ask of audiences, and I incorporate a lot of humour amid the darkness of these issues embedded in waterways.

Alberta Whittle, Mammmmmmmmywata Presents Life Solutions International, 2016. Film still. © the artist.

AMc: It becomes a necessity to use humour, doesn’t it, if you’re dealing with such weighty subjects, so that the work remains accessible to the audience?

AW: Definitely, and this was the first film in which I really did use humour. It’s a very short film, about five minutes. It’s good sometimes to have that time to reflect on these key moments that made you change your practice or try something new. I am someone who is quite introverted and hates performing. I never wanted to be in school plays – they left me cold with fear – and I only started doing performances when I felt called to. So when I first started making films, it came from a place where I felt I really needed to shake things up and I had to put my work on the line, to take a risk. And now, especially, with the Turner bursary and the Margaret Tait Award, I feel a lot of responsibility. It’s a really crucial time, I think, for me to feel emboldened, to be ambitious, and to continue to take risks where I can, because the world is changing so fast, and the questions in my work are also changing.

Alberta Whittle, Mammmmmmmmywata Presents Life Solutions International, 2016. Film still. © the artist.

AMc: I don’t know how you were planning to fit all of this in in the first place, but there are two further events you should have been participating in this year, both of which have been postponed due to Covid-19 – the Liverpool Biennial and Art Night. Can you say anything at this stage about what you will be showing there?

AW: I have been preparing work for Art Night since the end of 2019, when we thought it was going to go ahead in June, but when it was postponed, the team managed to rally so quickly and work to produce the Trailers programme instead. I really appreciated having a change of schedule where there was still an opportunity to share where I was at that point in time, especially since it coincided with an incredibly difficult moment with all of the global protests that were going on at the time. I’m now thinking that the next 10 or so months before Art Night finds its shape again will be a really good time for reflection. I had initially thought I would be responding very closely to the overwhelming Windrush crisis, and how that relates to ideas of grief, and migrants as collateral, which have been preoccupying me for some time. But I’m not sure how we’re going to work with the live components. I’m still going to be staging the installation and accompanying performance next year, but the shape in which that’s going to manifest itself is something I’m still working on. I’m hoping the work will still invite audiences to think about the times we’re living in and potentially offer moments for reflection, because we will be in such different times by next year.

AMc: Hopefully.

AW: Yes, fingers crossed.

Alberta Whittle, HOLDING THE LINE. Film still. © the artist.

AMc: That leads into my question about how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected you, both personally, in terms of your outlook on the world and the state of crisis we are in, and in terms of your art practice? Have you been able to continue making work, and has it fed into new ideas?

AW: Oh, my goodness. We are living in terrifying times. As the epidemiological and ecological emergency expands, and with our democracy in crisis, I have been asking myself how we can hold power to account. I’m in Barbados at the moment. We are still struggling with our borders being open, but also with the hurricane season. We’re experiencing terrible weather right now. There are all these different punctures in society, but the wheel is still turning, and people are being lost, and that’s really brought about an enormous sense of grief in me. I feel like these times are so urgent that it’s also important to keep on making where possible, and, since lockdown, I have made two new films: HOLDING THE LINE for Art Night and business as usual: hostile environment for Glasgow International (GI), as part of my collaboration with Glasgow Sculpture Studios and the community-led organisation Maryhill Integration Network. I made a very close, loose-ish edit of the film, which was going to be part of the sculptural installation for GI, but I had to change it significantly it they decided it was just going to put on a digital platform. I really wanted to highlight what I’d learned from working with Maryhill Integration Network’s incredible Joyous Choir, and I feel as though the time I spent with them really anchors the film in the potential for healing through mutual aid, mutual care, song, and communities becoming family. But I also wanted to shift the focus on to the horrors of the unfolding pandemic, where the same migrant, frontline NHS workers, who are struggling under the risk of deportation or detention, were now being expected to labour, with no PPE and in dire conditions. I am still processing all of that because there’s no real end in sight. Like most of us, I am fatigued with the prospect of a vaccine still being so far down the line.

Alberta Whittle, business as usual : hostile environment, 2020. © the artist.

AMc: Yes, and it’s just getting worse again, isn’t it?

AW: Yes, it’s still very strange times.

AMc: Finally, to end on something a little more upbeat, you’ve been a board member for the Scottish Contemporary Art Network since 2017. What does this role involve?

AW: As a board member, I work quite closely with a cohort of other people from within contemporary arts in Scotland. We try to make sure that our board is composed of people both within the central belt of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee, but also further north and close to the Borders, so that we can really get a good perspective on what’s happening across Scotland. It’s been a really good opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the power of artists to advocate for change and, working with the board, we’ve often supported the contemporary art sector, including artists and institutions, to try to access greater support, for example, from the Scottish government. I’ve spoken at the Scottish parliament, about the erasure of black artists and people of colour in Scotland and, before I was a board member, when I was a committee member at Transmission Gallery and our funding was cut, SCAN was incredibly helpful in supporting us with our conversations with Creative Scotland. But, right now, contemporary art is in serious crisis in Scotland and, as SCAN, we’ve been working to raise the alarm about what is at stake if dedicated funding for contemporary galleries, studios or fabrication studios is not provided. We’ve seen that the Scottish government has been providing support for performing arts venues, some music venues, and museums and permanent collections, but, essentially, contemporary art has been completely ignored, and so we’ve been drawing on the varied knowledge from across the cohort and our members to garner a clearer perspective on how terrifyingly real the precarity of contemporary arts in Scotland is. Personally, I feel as though I’ve really benefited from what has been a strong, vital and energetic Scottish contemporary art scene. Last year, I was given a studio as part of the in-residence programme at the Studio Pavilion, which is part of House for an Art Lover, but now the recent staff cuts have been so significant that all activity there has ceased. Having access to that studio was so significant for me, as I had not been able to afford one prior to this, and I was preparing for my solo show at DCA. It meant that I had the space to play, to plan, to make. It’s very important that we remember how much is at stake. The arts are really in crisis. There’s so much to be lost, and art has so much to offer.

Here Be Dragons is at Copperfield, London, from 16 September to 31 October 2020; the Photoworks Festival – Propositions for Alternative Narratives – will run from 24 September to 25 October 2020. For more information, see

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