This beguiling tapestry explores migration, trade and climate colonialism and was unveiled in 2022 as part of Scotland’s presentation for the 59th Venice Biennale.
In 2022 Alberta Whittle presented a new body of work at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, following a commission by the Scotland + Venice Partnership. At the centre of the presentation was a significant new tapestry, woven over 10 months by Dovecot weavers Naomi Robertson, Emma Jo Webster and Ben Hymers, with finishing by Whittle. As the first work to be encountered by visitors, it drew the audience into Whittle’s conceptual story-telling by melding maritime yarns with symbolic imagery and tropical colours.
The tapestry design draws together key visual themes in the artist’s installation: water, gateways, hands, diamonds, snakes and Venetian glass. Whittle, who was born in Barbados, grew up in Britain and now lives in Glasgow, has become known for her collaborative film installations focusing on battling anti-blackness, provoking new understandings of history and nurturing compassion. Her interest in working with tapestry stems from her time at Edinburgh College of Art, which was a centre of excellence for the medium from the early 1960s to the 2000s. Whittle chose to collaborate with Dovecot on the Venice installation as a way of representing her Scottish identity and, in part, to explore both the conceptual and aesthetic possibilities of her ideas through tapestry.
The Scotland + Venice Tapestry has an unconventional shape, following the outline of Whittle’s design rather than traditional right angles. The tapestry’s design brims with symbolism – the hands potentially representative of those who lost their lives at sea; or as a form of protest; or even of care. The snake motif connects, historically, with fertility and the figure of Mami Wata (Mother Water), a water spirit venerated in Africa, and in the African diaspora in the Americas.
The warps are blue and green; and the weft is beautifully textured with silken whaling rope, slubby linen and brightly dyed pearl cottons. The tapestry is adorned with Venetian glass beads, small cowrie and conch shells and the warps hang and pool on the floor below the artwork. These elements reference, in turn, water, trading, maritime history, migration and vernacular architecture from the Caribbean to West Africa, as well as rebellion against the imperial European countries that imposed it.
The tapestry is currently on show as part the exhibition Alberta Whittle: create dangerously at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Image (top): Entanglement is more than blood, Alberta Whittle and Dovecot Studios. Photography: Christiano Corte