Alberta Whittle (b.1980) has made work especially for the Holburne Museum
, Bath. New sculptures and text pieces are being shown alongside existing films in an exhibition that spreads beyond the Museum into the public realm.
The Barbadian-Scottish artist explores a variety of themes familiar to her practice including pleasure, self-care, relaxation, and health.
Viewed through this lens, Dipping Below a Waxing Moon, The Dance Claims Us For Release offers opportunities for growth and compassion despite addressing some uncomfortable truths about Britain, Bath, and the Holburne Museum in this major exhibition.
The exhibition, Whittles first in a public museum, directly addresses 18th-century histories; especially those shared by the Balls Plantation in her native Barbados which was owned by Guy Ball, the great-grandfather of Holburne Museum founder Sir Thomas William Holburne (1793 1874).
Dipping Below A Waxing Moon, The Dance Claims Us For Release transforms the Holburnes Roper Gallery into a mis-en-scene, where a group of seven sculpted figures are captured in various stages of the limbo. Whittle takes what many westerners now regard as a traditional Caribbean dance and, through the sculpted figures, freezes moments of their physical contortions to highlight how enslaved Africans were forced to perform for the amusement of their owners. The ensemble acts as a metaphor to show that something that appears to be fun is far from benign and that for members of the Caribbean diaspora, daily life in the West still requires a form of contortion or performance.
Whittle draws a comparison between the limbo and the promenade women would have made down Baths Great Pulteney Street and through Sydney Gardens - where the Holburne Museum is situated - during the 18TH-century. There, despite their apparent liberty, social structures enforced a specific type of female behavior which was performed and exaggerated while on public view. As the exhibitions curator, Will Cooper says: We might regard this elegant street during the Regency as a place in which the great and the good wished to see and be seen but it was also, by its very design, an environment in which to monitor and view those under their control.
The figures, titled Matrix Moves (inspired by both the 2019 film and Keanu Reeves famous bullet dodging, and a popular dancehall move), are dressed in traditional Caribbean carnival ware, drawing on characters from across the region including Jamaicas Pitchy Patchy or Barbados Shaggy Bear. Certain body parts a finger, or tongue for example are cast in precious metals or delicate blue and white porcelain, remind us of both the fragility and commodification of the Black body as well as making direct connections with objects in the Holburnes permanent collection.
Alongside the sculptures is a programme of Whittles moving image works including the museum premiers of both Lagareh - The Last Born made when Whittle represented Scotland at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022, and The Axe Forgets, But The Tree Remembers originally produced as part of the Hackney Windrush Public Programme commemorating the vital and ongoing contributions of the Windrush generation to life in the UK.
In addition to the installations inside the Museum, a series of large-scale billboard prints are being displayed across the city, employing poetic language to prompt viewers into engaging with post-colonial thinking through such carefully considered statements as Prisons are the new plantations.
These digital collages are, like the seven sculptures, entirely new work created for the exhibition, Will Cooper explains. They will be located around Bath and the surrounding area and reflect themes embedded in Albertas practice. By placing the works across the city, we hope to engage audiences that might not otherwise visit the museum while prompting any visitor to consider ways that we can grow collectively, with compassion, care and generosity
Born in Bridgetown on Barbados, Whittle grew up familiar with the nearby Christ Church area, where the Balls Plantation was located. A 1722 ledger is on display at the Holburne, dating back to the Ball familys ownership of the 400-acre sugar estate. Remarkably, just one page with legible content survives inside the covers, detailing the delivery of provisions including candles, beef and cocoa. Somewhat chillingly, around 150 pages were cut out, prompting the question; when, why, and by whom? Could they have been removed around the time of the abolition of slavery to hide evidence? We may never know the truth, but this disturbing aspect of the ledger provides a thought-provoking starting point for Whittles show. In 2019 Whittle was invited to write an epitaph for those that died on the Balls Plantation. This text and a new poem will feature in the exhibition and be made available as an audio work drawing visitors from the off-site text works, into the gallery.
Alberta Whittle says:"Working with the Holburne Museum has been a meaningful proposition to examine connections between Baths architecture to colonial pleasure. The opportunity to be ambitious and manifest a new series of works that are situated both inside and outside the museum, on the streets of Bath as become a necessary means of exploring how power encourages erasure."
Chris Stephens, Director of the Holburne Museum comments: We are thrilled to be hosting Alberta Whittles first solo museum exhibition. This is a hugely important moment for the Holburne Museum, the city of Bath and our region as she addresses the darkest corners of our history and highlights them in a spirit of reparation and forward-looking positivity. It is important that we acknowledge the horrific events of the past, but it is also important that, together, we all tend to our individual and collective well-being as Albertas work encourages.