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The Artwork of Alberta Whittle Sparks Conversation on Racism in Britain

‘Everything is going to be alright’ alights the top of a column-fronted building in the gardens of the Museum of Modern art in Edinburgh. Weird that, it’s the very title of the Kendrick Lamar song “Alright” that acted as the protest song during the BLM mass mobilisation. Another display of great wealth, unnecessarily large columns loom over the visitors, almost threatening in their presence. It was built in 1778 by a prominent Glaswegian merchant. How many buildings in Edinburgh have their roots in slavery? It’s a sobering thought. It adds a more fabulous to the already expressive artwork of Alberta Whittal currently on display at the gallery.

Through her artwork, Whittle reclaims the space in her exhibition, brilliantly titled ‘create dangerously’. It’s an act of resistance, and better yet a real wallop in the stomach to British colonial history. She breathes black power into the white walls. These walls would never have been erected had it not been for the exploitation of black bodies and minds.

A nanny, a baby, Alberta Whittle and the confrontation of British history and chattel slavery. A woman born in Barbados, emigrated to Birmingham, finally settled in Scotland. Not even aged one year old, baby Maya is innocent to her surroundings. She crawls along the floor poking her fingers into the plastic moulds of feet and shells and plays with the colourful tapestries made by Whittle. Looking around her she listens to the sounds of women’s voices on the speaker talking about African experience – an invitation to touch, to listen and to write poetry and draw.

An offering of a magnetic poetry table invites people to reflect upon their day’s outing - words jumbled upon the table, inspiration drawn from other poets. Young girls coo over the baby with her deep brown hair, large eyes, and Brown skin, inherited from her Indian mother.

Speaking to a young Black woman, she says to me “Scotland really needed this exhibition”.

Discussing the poetry further, we touch on racism and on the use of short words as a dynamic way to guide and express one’s thought process, relieving the feeling of needing to overthink one’s word choice.

The wee baby chucks another magnetic word on the floor and muddles another poem. Interaction helps growth, no matter whether you read, write, or just know. In Scotland there is limited questioning of privilege nor a moment’s thought beyond the beautiful old buildings that people reside in and walk past every day.

Some of the buildings that line the cobbled streets of Edinburgh are built from the fortunes made by Scottish involvement in the capturing of African peoples.

The most prominent example of profits made this way is the statue located in St Andrews Square, an ode to Henry Dundas, a man who with extreme wealth invested in the Atlantic slave trade, and ultimately committed vile acts of racial prejudice that resulted in genocide of indigenous peoples. One only has to walk down George Street and onto Charlotte Square to find oneself staring up at Bute House, home to the Scotland’s First Minister.

Another toppling of oppressive systems is demonstrated by the First Minister, Humza Yousaf, who is the first person of colour person to take up and the youngest person to ever take up this position. Despite it being a step in the right direction for greater representation in Scottish politics, there is still a long way to go to call Scotland an accepting nation. There are progressive laws and views on gender and race, but this should not be overshadowed by the fact that it is an overwhelmingly white nation.

In the two hundred years since Henry Dundas, however, little progress appears to be made in addressing migration and racial prejudices in Scotland. The UK Home Office handles the number of migrants accepted in the UK. In January last year, the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, Sabir Zazai said “the overall picture here is really worrying. The Home Secretary announced plans in August to resettle 20,000 people from Afghanistan, including up to 5,000 people in the first year. But not one person has come to the UK yet through this scheme and none of the refugee agencies we work with across the UK have been given any information on when the programme will start.”

There is a sentiment in Scotland that there is a desire to do more, take in more economic and climate migrant or refugees, but the UK Home Office fails to invest properly in the UK’s migration system. All the while, Suella Braverman comes out with despicable phrases referring to refugees arriving in Kent as an “invasion”.

Moreover, there is certainly an imbalance in British response to individuals seeking asylum based on the colour of their skin. The response to the war in Ukraine was incredible and it was amazing to see the altruism on display as people opened their homes to refugees fleeing the persecution of Putin. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Afghanis, Syrians or Ethiopians to name a few non-white refugee populations.

Art sparks conversation. Only upon returning back to Maya’s home did her mother, Mina, begin to share more about her own experience as a Brown person growing up in the UK. She explained how when she was younger, she was proud to be British and Indian. Yet, as Mina grew up and learnt more about Indian history, her views strayed from those of her parents. She was no longer as proud to be British considering the persecution of so many peoples by British colonial rule over the past few centuries.

Mina was born in the UK, but her parents emigrated from India to London for work before they had children. She imparted more knowledge about her hometown of Madras, and she spoke of the ways in which Britain used their power over South Asian countries to operate other sugar cane plants and other sources of income in the Caribbean and West Indies.

Alberta Whittle’s artwork sparked a lot of conversation and thought that day, and her expressive pieces act as a colourful reminder that people should be thinking about these topics and discussing them more in our daily lives. As a white privileged woman living comfortably in a safe and stable City, I should do more to question how we got here. Hopefully, reflecting upon a shared history, we can do more moving forward to both reflect and find solutions.

Take the BLM movement, for instance. In August of last year, City Councillors accepted all ten recommendations. A part of this, Edinburgh will apologise for the historical injustices caused through the city’s involvement in slavery. Moreover, statues, buildings and street names involved in the transatlantic slave trade will be “re-presented” to explain the consequences to the public.

Sir Jeffrey Palmer, the chair of the review stated that “an apology doesn’t buy bread but it gives another form of sustenance,”. However, finding an outlet, whether that is art, poetry, music or painting on the unthinkable may prompt deeper thinking about our reprehensible world history. There must be more we can do to thwart racial injustices and find a way to restore racial power equality. 



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