Alberta Whittle @ Dundee Contemporary Arts

Alberta Whittle's DCA show is an urgent call for audiences to become conscious of the continuing effects of colonialism and the afterlife of slavery, as resources and attention are consistently diverted from natural disasters in Africa and the Caribbean

Review by Adam Benmakhlouf | 05 Nov 2019
  • Alberta Whittle @ Dundee Contemporary Arts

Titled How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth, the exhibition opens with three reprints of 16th century engravings showing the progression of colonisation from a first encounter to horrific violence. Through their bright recolouring and crisp, clean edges, the archival images become visually buzzing, destabilising the otherwise familiar historical illustrations. 

In the next room, an audio work of the richly hoarse voice of Whittle’s grandmother’s traces their family tree. A clay mask sits fixed in a bemused grin, a bronze tongue is wrapped in a shell, with elastic bands, a hoodie and a broken jaw bone. Subtly, attention is drawn to the violence and power dynamics left unspoken when the grandmother alludes to Scottish colonial administrators having sex with enslaved workers.

The largest gallery holds a large sunken Caribbean-style house, a fallen limbo pole and figure made of streamers, and a bell hung from joined ponytails. Directly alluding to natural disasters in the Caribbean, the atmosphere is of recent calamity and eerie calmness. 

In two recent film works these references are developed. Lines of influence and causality between slavery and colonialism recur in sailing and sea images, archival videos of enslaved people, and in footage of charged performances and choreography by Whittle and her players – her term for the cast of predominantly Black performers, friends and artists that appear in her videos. For example, a whirling dancer becomes a hurricane seen from above through a careful edit. 

Coming as the final works of the exhibition (one is dated to the previous month of the exhibition opening), express urgency is given to the consistent intention across the exhibition of unsettling history and contemporary international political configurations. Artificial separations between then and now melt as injustices of colonialism and anti-Blackness manifest in contemporary and consistent diversion of attention and resources from natural disasters in the Caribbean and Central Africa.

How Flexible Can We Make the Mouth, Dundee Contemporary Arts, until 24 Nov, free