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.

Image: Alberta Whittle, Lagareh – The Last Born, (film still – single channel video), 2022. Photographer Jaryd Niles-Morris, © Alberta Whittle. Courtesy the artist, Scotland+Venice, and Forma.

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.

Alberta Whittle deep dive (pause) uncoiling memory, 2022 Installation Shot Photographer Cristiano Corte, © Alberta Whittle. Courtesy the artist, Scotland+Venice & Forma, London

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.

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    “For so long there was this complete reluctance and avoidance in discussing Scotland’s role within slavery and within plantation economies. There’s this sense that racism and police brutality is an English problem or an American problem, something that isn’t happening on these shores. There are ways in which the luxury of amnesia has been nurtured by Governments, by the stories we tell ourselves, by ways we find to avoid our own complicity with our own privilege.”

    I think that there is a great deal of truth in this statement from the blurb in the Biennale notes relating to this exhibitor. I think, in particular, the statement about the ‘luxury of amnesia’ has been nurtured in the ways described. I recall as a schoolboy c1962 learning about the Triangular Trade in Geography lessons. It was presented broadly in positive terms as an example of economic creativity . The fact that the ‘middle passage’ involved transporting slaves was mentioned and, rightly, condemned, but as a blemish on what was something which had brought benefit. At that time, too, the malign effects of tobacco were not as widely known and the fact that Glasgow at the time had a flourishing tobacco industry, based largely along Alexandra Parade, just along from our school, was presented as a ‘good thing’ and an example of British leadership. So, the final sentence is particularly accurate.

    It was only later, indeed, into the current century, that historians began to uncover more data about specifically Scottish history, as distinct from it being subsumed into a wider British history. At school, “Scottish” history comprised Wallace and Bruce, the Union of the Crowns, the Union of the Parliaments and the “Scottish” aspect was subsumed within the British context.

    As the extent of specifically Scottish dimensions to the slave trade became clearer, this was used as a unionist attack line against what they termed ‘Scottish exceptionalism’. This is the straw man they created to portray the growing demand for independence as being based upon a myth that we Scots were better than anyone else. Part of the potency of the ‘straw man’ fallacy is that part of its premises are factually correct – some Scottish people do think they are better than others. But, most do not and, in any case, every nationality contains some exceptionalists : think “Rule Britannia” and ‘when Britain FIRST at Heav’n’s command … etc’. In the eyes of the unionists it was the union with England that kept us Scots from such racism and, therefore, if allowed to go it alone, we would revert to such inhuman attitudes and conduct.

    However, most Scots, like, for example, most Germans after WW2 or French people after Vietnam and Algeria, etc have been able to accept that there are things in our histories that were shameful and, that, indeed, some of us personally had agreed at one time that these things were examples of our white supremacy. But, people are capable of changing their minds, of acknowledging complicity, of expressing regret, of carrying out some kind of ‘reparation’ and, of living differently and behaving in more humane ways. Is the fact that as a schoolboy and as a student I did a lot of work in The Mitchell Library and Stirling’s Library to be damn me and others for all time because both institutions were built as a result of profits from the slave trade? Are my two degrees from the University of Glasgow worthless because of that institution’s benefits from slavery? Should Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum be closed because it once housed so many artefacts pillaged from other countries?

    The concept of ‘exogenous shock’ is a long recognised mechanism for changing attitudes (for good or ill) and receiving such shocks from people furth of Scotland has contributed to changes in my attitudes. But, there is also ‘endogenous shock’ when people within a society discover that things they believed prove to be lies. As Keynes said, ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’.

    I think those of us who live in Scotland, irrespective of our places of origin or backgrounds are capable of accepting such things are part of our shared histories and accommodating them without loss of self-respect and moving on in a more inclusive way.

    It is the British nationalists and their media who have failed to hold up mirrors to themselves.

  2. 221027 says:

    I saw Alberta’s performance piece, DIS- A lesson in Reversal or Unlearning in London a year ago last summer. It brought home to me that decolonisation is as much about unlearning the hegemonies that constitute us and the worlds we inhabit (which is part of the work of elenchus and deconstruction) as about reversing the ‘wrongs’ we perceive, from the point of view of our own hegemonic Western morality, that we’ve done to others; that our trying to ‘put things right’ only reinforces our colonisation and strengthens the hegemony we continue to exercise over others. The performance was one of the most powerful dialectical critiques of our bourgeois liberal ‘wokeness’ I’ve seen. Far more immediate in its impact than Žižek on the subject.

    The message of the performance was that we can’t sort this; only the oppressed themselves can free their ‘minds’.

  3. dave says:

    First, it is obvious that the article by Adam Ramsay was written based on English history and not Scottish history. There is no, and never was a country called Britain as inferred. The only so-called Scots who benefitted from black slavery was the few elites of the day, as since 1707 England
    made Scotland a colony. Since then whether we like to admit it or not WE, the vast majority of Scots black, brown or white became slaves. It was an Englishman who engineered the Highland clearances. To give a clearer view to-day some of those elites or wanabee English elites are Alister Jack, Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Murrell, Ian Blackford and all of the 3 English branch Tory, Labour and LibDem supervisors with their SMP’s at Holyrood. The blackout of Scottish history conducted by those in conjunction with the English Gov’t and English owned Scottish media started after the 1707 sell out of Scotland by a very few traitors.
    How many Scots have heard about Admiral Thomas Cochrane? This Scottish Heroe’s true story will astound you.
    To sum up. The Scottish Sovereign nation are fighting to get rid of the second-class status imposed on us by the English Gov’t. since 1707 which has made us slaves to the English aristocrats (elites). The NU-S.N.P. leadership elites are working to keep the status quo while pretending to support our independence.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      It was not just the wealthy anglicised elites who benefitted from the profits of the slave trade, although they benefitted to a far greater degree. The Scottish middle classes had a very high level of investment in the slave trade.

      Thanks to the growth in research into the history of Scotland undertaken in the past four decades, a lot more is known by more Scottish people than was the case when I attended school during the 1950s and 1960s. So, I and many others know about Admiral Cochrane and many others.

      To bracket the FM, her husband and Mr Blackford with Alistair Jack is, frankly, ludicrous. It makes me suspect you are a troll.

      1. dave says:

        Or perhaps you are the troll. Perhaps you can post anything positive that the any of the Murrells, Ian Blackford or Alister Jack have done for our independence. I can give you examples of what they have not done. I was an S.N.P. member since the days of Billy Wolfe. In 2014 I stood outside Glasgow university with a bunch of Scottish lassies standing up for Scottish independence. Then Bathgate, Edinburgh and the Borders. Where were you? I left the NU-S.N.P. about 3 years ago when it became painfully obvious that F.M. Sturgeon and company had no intention of fighting for our independence. I contributed many ideas for Indy to Alex Salmond when he led the very dynamic S.N.P. I was told by Sturgeon’s snippy assistant not to contact her twice. So, I sent a paper to the NU-S.N.P. HQ several times as directed by the snippy assistant asking why there was no referendum called. I never received an answer. The minute Alex Salmond became leader of Alba I joined with many others who realized that Ms. Sturgeon was only interested in keeping Scotland as a colony of England. Her statement a few weeks ago that she is British confirms that.
        If you think that begging to our colonial masters in London will bring independence you are either naive or a unionist.
        Since you know about him, how many statues of Admiral Thomas Cochrane are in Scotland and where ?

        1. Alec Lomax says:

          Alba Party. Wow. They’re really making an impact with the Scottish electorate !

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @dave, on history, you might read Scottish historian TM Devine’s Scotland’s Empire, based on work by a team of modern researchers, which notes that Glasgow was built on slave tobacco, sugar and cotton; while Scottish herring fishermen and linen producers relied on slave markets. Many Scots entered the British East India Company, or served as ship doctors on slaving vessels.

      Or another collaboration, TM Devine-edited Recovering Scotland’s Slavery Past: The Caribbean Connection, where Devine apologizes for the historical amnesia of historians including himself until 15 years before. The book looks at debunking myths (Scots-Caribbean relations did flourish pre-1707, with Royal Navy protection), and providing statistics such as 65% of Scottish exports were to the West Indies in 1815.

      Since you are keen on naval history, you might like to consider how Scottish steamships, built on the Clyde, were instrumental in supporting the slave-owning South in the USAmerican Civil War, something I only learnt about in this BBC documentary:

      Devine also notes that, although more conservative than continental Enlightenments, eventually most Scottish Enlightenment philosophers (among them Francis Hutcheson, if you want a name) did speak out against slavery, as did some in the Church of Scotland, but they faced powerful vested interests within Scotland.

      I don’t hold with Great Man (Occasionally Woman) Views of History, and I don’t think that an Independent Scotland needs heroes. People, particularly those who have held positions of authority and influence, generally prove quite flawed. I also know a British Nationalist-Imperialist who is a Thomas Cochrane fan. We should also understand the constraints (political, economic etc.) that shaped people’s choices. If Scotland was once producing 85% of British doctors but Scottish-qualified doctors were forbidden from practising in England, this suggests one reason why so many ended up on slaving vessels. Another was that this was a potential route to riches and political position. There are Scottish country houses built on the backs of enslaved and colonised people, just as in England and Wales.

      1. dave says:

        Hullo Sleeping Dog. Your comments and information are very interesting and certainly I am not trying to say that Scots did not receive benefits from the horrible black slavery. My point is that we do need Scottish heroes. Why? What is the purpose of Statues of English ‘heroes’ in Scotland? Our big problem is being taught to be humble. I am a proud Scot and I can see where humbleness has led us to. The ‘canny dae that’ attitude is instilled in our minds from day 1 at school in very subtle ways. I am not ashamed to stand up for Scotland and I will never accept that I am not anything but Scottish. When someone tells me that Andy Murray is British I immediately correct that by pointing out he is Scottish. As you are well aware British means English. Sean Connery was a great man who stood up for Scotland. Why on earth would he say he was British? If you accept being called English then fine. Perhaps you are. Genius Admiral Thomas Cochrane was the brains behind the defeat of Napolean’s French navy. He got no credit and all the English history books never mention him. He has streets named after him in Chile, Peru’ and perhaps Brazil although I am not sure about Brazil. I’m sure you know why. You can bet your boots that I make sure that people know about him and that he was a Scot. Scotland’s constraints are a lack of pride and an acceptance of the ‘canny dae that’ mentality imposed on us since 1707. To-day a growing number of Scots realize why we are so poor in spite of Scotland being one of the wealthiest countries in the world as they have broken that mental chain fed to us for over 300 years plus and now say “we can dae it’. The leader who will take us to independence is Alex Salmond with Alba and ISP parties, along with true indy groups. We shall never achieve it with the begging programme of the F.M. NU-S.N.P. leader Sturgeon who openly admits that she is British. Since 2014 her do-nothing approach has done exactly nothing.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @dave, I accept that, at the time I grew up and for many years, English and British have been conflated and confused, at least by many English people/organisations and many abroad. The British union flag was flown at English international sporting fixtures. However, since the mid 1990s, the English flag of St George has often been the main flag flown in these, and there has been a rise (really a re-emergence) of English nationalism as distinct from British nationalism, which must in some part reflect the devolution settlements.

          We have different views on heroes, but I can see that reminding people outside the British Empire that Scotland once had a separate foreign policy and diplomatic relations could have mutual benefits if an Independent Scotland also recognised the bad along with the good in its historical dealings with others, something that would help make a distinction in global eyes.

          1. dave says:

            Hullo Sleeping Dog. Most Scots know nothing about our history of involvement of the horrible slave ‘trade’. Could that be because after 1707 our history became that of Englands? They blanked out anything good about Scotland including the fantastic Scots inventors who gave tremendous assets to the world, telephone, TV, Refrigeration and so on. They have however made up for that since independence reared its head and have done nothing else but hammer away at all the Scottish BAD things and how we are incapable of doing anything without their supervision and control. We should also remember that it was the aristocrats of England along with a few from Scotland who made the deals using black slavery to make money for themselves. The Scottish workers had no choice but to do the work of their bosses. Gower, the Englishman and creator of the Highland clearances used the highland Scots less than animals kicking them of the land and replacing them with sheep. These highlanders also had no choice but to do as their English boss told them.
            We will be independent but not through F.M. Sturgeon. Everyday billions of Scottish pounds are collected by England while a Scottish clearance is being run by said Sturgeon. This time Scots who can’t progress in their homeland go to other countries which get the benefit of their genius.
            Ms. Sturgeon is British by her own admission. A Brit leading independence against her Britain. No way.

    3. John Wood says:

      I don’t think it is helpful or correct to see this in terms of ‘English’ oppression of ‘Scots’. Henry VII and later James VI headed off to London from Wales and Scotland respectively to rule the English. It was James that coined the idea of ‘Great Britain’ and tried (and failed) to unite the Parliaments. The Act of Union was an act of pure betrayal by wealthy Scots, ‘a parcel of rogues’. It was all about getting control of the relative wealth of England – only to find that their new found wealth ruled them.

      The perception of the world and everything in it as a hierarchy of resources for greed has very deep roots in the Judeao-Christian-Islamic tradition. The decline of Christianity in Europe gave way to an individualism that rejected inherited ethical frameworks and saw existence as a matter of competition and struggle for dominance. The ‘survival of the fittest’ meaning the survival of the nastiest and most ruthless. We are now seeing the final stages of that ideology playing out.

      This ideology that drove the Industrial revolution, the Clearances, the Slave Trade (although European in character), was therefore not the exclusive preserve of any one ‘nation’. It did initially divide Lowland Scots from Highlanders whose cultural outlook was still much more like that of other so-called ‘indigenous’ peoples. But this culture came under attack from the capitalist mindset which rapidly overtook it, especially after 1745. Gaelic culture increasingly came to be seen as a quaint survival and Gaels as much like other ‘native’ peoples of the Empire. But that view was not confined to the ‘English’. The wealthy Scot was just as keen on ‘Improvement’ and ‘industry’ as his or her English equivalent. The Gaels had already suffered colonisation from lowland Scots and the Scottish crown long before the Union of the Parliaments. The Lowland Scot was told that he was ‘better’ than the ‘primitive’ Gael because he spoke ‘English’ and had the Protestant work ethic. Adam Smith was a Scot, as were all those other inventors, engineers, administrators who adopted the new capitalist thinking. Soon, MacPherson could celebrate the poems of ‘Ossian’ even while clearing his own tenants from Badenoch. Patrick Sellar could seek to justify his crimes by claiming his own grandparents had suffered Clearance and this had been beneficial to him. The chief of Macleod oversaw the shackling and throwing onto ships of his own people.

      The persecuted became the persecutor. So many Scots (and others) found themselves in America or Australia whether by intention or removal and forced to survive by colonising and destroying the people they found there. For all Jim Hunter’s heartwarming stories of Highlanders and Native Americans, the reality was the majority of Scots settlers, like those from all over Europe, carved out a living at the expense of the natives. Others were enticed into joining the armies and merchant adventurers by the promise of gain and glory. It was always thus, in every Empire. How many Romans in Britain actually came from Rome? Precious few.

      So nationalism in the form of either pride in or guilt for history is equally unhelpful. We have to examine and change our entire perception and see ourselves and the planet as one living system. What we do to others we do to ourselves. Freeing ourselves from the remains of the ‘British Empire’ is just the first step. We surely need to reimagine a Scotland that can be a model for the world of a new kind of economic and political experiment based on ‘power with’, not ‘power over’, mutual aid rather than competition and exploitation. The old paradigm simply doesn’t work anymore – of it ever really did. For me that means interlinked, circular economies and political entities to match. Let’s see a creative, decentralised Scotland of flourishing regions and localities reflecting diverse identities.

      As a final thought, I do think that all our political parties are still trapped in the old mindset and we cannot look to any of them to provide the inspiration or the changes needed. We need a new political party.

      1. dave. says:

        Hullo John Wood. First, I’d like to make it clear that as a Scot I, nor the majority of Scots hate the English. Unfortunately, it comes out that way when in fact it should be English aristocrats. There are over 600 English MPs +- none of whom have ever backed anything for Scotland while we have 2 Alba MPs standing up for we Scots. To-day you can include the 57 NU-S.N.P.s in the 600 English, NI and Welsh MPs.
        The fact is that we Scots are oppressed by the English aristocrats. Boris, Liz and P.M. Sunak are examples. You mention ‘not helpful’, not helpful to what? There is one fact that is continually overlooked: 2 Scottish MPs can never outvote 600 UK MPs. Thats what it is about. We want to rule ourselves. Each MP at Westminster makes or should make decisions on the constituency he or she represents.
        We do not want nuclear subs on the Clyde. That just one of the many areas we can never change unless we have independence.

        If you have read my posts, I have constantly stated that it is the Scottish Wannabe aristocrats who are the problem. Namely: F.M. Sturgeon, NU-S.N.P.CEO Murrell appointed by Ms. Sturgeon, his wife. and Ian Blackford. as they never have wanted Scotland’s independence while lying that they are campaigning for it. Since 2014 the F.M. has used every lame excuse to delay independence and has never said she is an independista.
        Here are 3 events of interest:
        Westminster Parliament.

        1) 5 weeks ago. Kenny MacAskill stated that while the Ukrainian conflict was terrible but he was concerned about the austerity programme put on Scotland by the English Gov’t. He was roundly bood by both the English MPs and NU-S.N.P.s
        2) 3 weeks ago. Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey stood up for Scottish Independence and was thrown out by the Speaker. All NU-S.N.P.s just sat looking at the floor in embarrassment.
        3 Last week Kenny MacAskill stood up to ask about the energy issue penalizing Scotland and all NU-S.N.P.s led by Ian Blackford immediately walked out.
        Ms. Sturgeon has stated flat out that she is British. So, a Brit is going to lead an independence movement to break up Britain ?

        The non-actions of the NU-S.N.P. leadership for independence is a big fat zero. Begging to a British PM for permission to hold a referendum and then asking the English supreme court if that is legal is humiliating for any Scot and others who have chosen to live here.
        Scotland is a sovereign country and doesn’t have to ask any country for permission for anything. As a sovereign country all we need is a declaration of independence. It is the traitor Ms. Sturgeon who is lying about needing permission.
        Yes, religion has played a big part in colonialism and slavery. In our case the Jewish Catholic against Jewish protestant was and is still being used. It is notable that in America the majority of Slave owners were Pastors.

        1. John Wood says:

          I agree with all that, but my point is that framing this as ‘English’ v ‘Scots’ is not correct. The aristocracy, the oligarchs and their hangers-in are international. I think it would be better to use the term ‘British’ (in quotes) because that is what all these people identify as. Most of the present UK ‘government’ and establishment are from other parts of the Empire.
          The Union, the Empire, was driven – and still is in its present form – by the City of London and the ‘royal’ family.
          When I say ‘not helpful’ I mean it can be counter productive to what you and I have wanted, and alienating for the many English people who actually support independence for Scotland and detest the Union.

          1. dave. says:

            Hi John. Yes, your point is well taken. Ms. Sturgeon says that she is British, and that Scotland will always be part of Britain. Ian Blackford brags how about much he enjoys life at Westminster. The parcel of rogues is still with us…………………

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