Freedom Come All Ye at the Venice Biennale
Adam Ramsay reviews Alberta Whittle’s installation at the Venice Biennale.
As I stepped off the waterbus which had floated us down Venice’s grand canal, Léa started to stir. And so, as we walked past the Biennale garden to the warehouse hosting the Scottish exhibition, I sang my usual lullaby.
“Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin’,” opens Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye, to a bagpipe tune familiar from my days as a schoolboy snare drummer, “blaws the cloods helster gowdie oer the bay,” I like to think the vibrations of my chest are soporific. “But there’s mair not a roch wind blawin’ in the Great Glen that is the world the day.” Her head slumped back against me.
Henderson wrote the lyrics in 1960, in response to Harold Macmillan’s wind of change speech, delivered first in Accra in the newly independent Ghana, and then in the South African parliament in Cape Town. A Conservative prime minister, Macmillan was accepting the process of decolonisation that had begun under Labour governments after significant struggle from African activists. Henderson, a Scottish communist, was celebrating it.
When we arrived at Alberta Whittle’s installation, we found her using the same imagery.
A Barbadian-Scottish artist, her installation explores the legacies of the triangular slave trade and Scotland’s role in it in a moving film entitled “Lagareh – The Last Born” which juxtaposes scenes about love and joy in contemporary non-traditional Black families and shots of Black Scots in kilts in iconicly Scottish landscapes with footage from Barbados and Sierra Leone describing some of the brutal details of the enslavement industry, from which many Scots profited.
Images of Whittle and other Black womxn (as they are described in the show’s materials) holding long drapes of bright coloured cloth in a strong wind sweeping across a hillside help tie the piece together – rough’s the wind as a clear day dawns.
The Venice Biennale has been organised annually since 1895, alternating between architecture and the visual arts, and, while Italian art and curation is at the centre, much of it is made up of installations in national pavilions, built around a park at the southeast of the city: Belgium’s was the first to open in 1907; Hungary, Germany and Britain opened in 1909 – there are now 29.
But it was beyond there that we found the art we loved the most. Other nations turn shops, cafes and whatever spaces they can find into galleries, dressed up by an annually selected artist. Mongolia’s had wonderful, bizarre hanging sculptures made from shiny foil. Armenia’s had a beautiful sculpture which Léa pointed at gleefully, shouting “slide!”.
It’s always fascinating experiencing art with a toddler – she’s 21 months old. She’s easily bowled over by stunning images: a couple of weeks earlier she’d run around a Rembrandt exhibition pointing and shouting “picture!” “Wow!”. She’d loved the Belgian exhibition at the Biennale, videos of children around the world playing a range of wonderful and inventive games – it was probably our favourite too. She is quick to be bored by the boring, pretentious and unbeautiful.
I was amazed by how much of “Lagareh, the last born” she watched – by the time it was starting, she’d woken up. Somehow the imagery which sustains a deeper and more complex set of messages she’s not yet old enough to understand captivated her for most of the film’s 45 minutes.
The themes Whittle’s exhibition explores are common throughout the Biennale – France’s Zineb Sedira’s exhibition investigates the drive to make militant films in the 1960s and ’70s as a way to explore her own history as a French Algerian.
Britain’s Sonya Boyce, who won the award for the best national exhibition, is the first Black woman to represent her country (see Feeling Her Way). America’s Simone Leigh explores Black femme subjectivity, including in a series of beautiful sculptures. Norway, Finland and Sweden gave over their joint space to indigenous Sami artists, who explored how the climate and biodiversity crises are reinforcing the colonialism they have long suffered.
But when, as our time in Venice ran out, I asked two women who I took to be African Americans which exhibit they’d enjoyed the most – which we should see in our final moments, they looked at each other, and agreed “Scotland’s”.
We don’t yet have an independent state. But as a nation – an imagined community – Scotland is increasingly confident in claiming our space on the international stage. As we do so, we must be humble, acknowledging that our past is as bullies and plunderers. The project of independence will require accepting and apologising for the crimes that made us a rich country. The union between Scotland and England was about teaming up to colonise the world, and by breaking up Britain, we seek to finally bring an end that project.
One day, perhaps, as Henderson put it, “broken families in lands we’ve harried will curse Scotland the brave no more.”
In the meantime, Alberta Whittle’s exhibition is doing a tour of Scotland over the coming months, and I’m looking forward to seeing it at the Edinburgh’s Gallery of Modern Art – hopefully I’ll catch the end this time.