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  • Writer's pictureSegolene Py

Alberta Whittle, Respectability Won't Save You: a Caribbean Haunting at Nicola Vassell Gallery, NYC

During my business trip to New York, I had the incredible chance to run around the big city. I ran into this Gallery and was lured in by the word Caribbean. I love when opportunities like this one occurs and catches you by surprise. Open until 25th June 2022, Alberta Whittle is having a solo show with Nicola Vassell Gallery in Chelsea, NY.

Icon For Summoning Memory, 2022

Respectability Won't Save You: A Caribbean Haunting is a solo show by the Barbados-born, Scotland based multidisciplinary artist Alberta Whittle curated by Arianna Nourse. The exhibition is showing a broad range of works in different media: paintings, drawings, textile and video performance. It is divided into 3 rooms, all with a different style and approach to the subject elaborated in the title of the exhibition. The subjects of assimilation, displacement and double consciousness are heavily referred to in her works. It also aim to show the challenges as a Black individual to move into a White country, and to maintain Caribbean culture while doing it.

Conjuring Duppies Behind The Queen’s Back, 2022 Listening In The Shadows For The Call Of The Masquerade, 2022

Respectability was described in the terms of Alberta Whittle's elders as:

"no combing of hair outside; no shiny clothes on his family before 6 pm; and certainly no island mysticism. In silken armour - the cousins hoped - no officer would frisk you. Follow the codes - the aunties whispered - and nobody get hurt."

In other words, erase your true identity to appear 'civilised' in the eye of the other. Using her grandfather's photographs as inspiration, Whittle's works depict Black figures placed in the midst of a #Caribbean fauna and flora imagery, challenging the so-called respectable, presentable somewhat staged Bridgetown family portraits. The artist frames her smaller works with ripped off joggers decorated with sewn shells, and hanging bandanas or colourful fringes reminiscent of Carnival. In the curation of the show, these colourful paintings are sectioned by violent hyperrealistic drawings showing altercations between young Black men and British police officers. These drawings pull you back to reality with force, maybe a way to show a fear of what would happen if this 'respectability' was not observed. The hopes of her family's vision and application of respectability are shown to be futile, and brought down by the government.

Respectability Won’t Save Us: Cycles Of Erasure II, 2022 Respectability Won’t Save Us: Cycles Of Erasure III, 2022

Displaying flamboyant colours, and rich textiles material in her tufting works, Alberta Whittle defies this ancestral view of respectability and unveil the truth behind it. These works take away this need to "self-contain" or "cover-up" as Arianna Nourse writes in her curatorial essay. The first occurrence we encounter in the exhibition is a violent vision of assimilation, but they are presented differently the fabric works. Each of the pieces summons characters and show incredible colours. The use of textile is reminiscent of the Carnival and the masquerade, one of the most important celebration of Caribbean culture as a way to escape this atmosphere of repression and commemorate Caribbean people. In some ways, Whittle's tufting works in this exhibition are a reaction to the former ones described.

Icon To Prepare For Masquerade, 2022

The title of the exhibition and all of the works are very poignant. The exhibition title uses strong words such as 'haunting', referring to a feeling of this engrained behaviour on both sides - One repress and the other bend down. However, her paintings of another series in the same room depict Black people posing lazily in plain though colourful clothes amidst Caribbean and Scottish/ northern England landscape. Patches of her memories with family, memories of tenderness, playfulness are nicely represented here although the subject of assimilation, which has a connotation with hostility, and how she lived the transition from Barbados and the UK stays as the centre of the subject, is reminded in the titles strongly. She portrays Black figures with colourful masks in When Assimilation Is Demanded, Our Spirit Stays Strong or Poised And Ready To Counter The Hard-Hearted Gaze Of Surveillance, also referencing the process of double consciousness. This term was first coined by W.E.B. Dubois which is when someone performs instead of showing there real character, here it is an internal conflict to choose 'respectability' over objection.

When Assimilation Is Demanded, Our Spirit Stays Strong, 2022

In this show, Alberta Whittle shows the challenges she went through and still fight for as a Caribbean person. The exhibition seems to take us through her journey through assimilation, acceptation and break through fears to become her full self, break away from this 'haunting'. In an essay for the exhibition, she explains how she used to fear snakes when she was little, and in this last painting, she portrayed herself with them, even embracing it, by walking with them. To me, putting this series of painting at the end shows an exit, a possibility to resolve this 'respectability' kind of thinking, a haunting of the past where white supremacist and colonisers tried to silence and impose. Alberta Whittle presents a new generation to show the Caribbean culture existence and the strength you can find in it and you own self to surpass any kind of repression.

Out Of The Chalk Outline, She Arises, 2022

Alberta Whittle (b.1980, Bridgetown, Barbados) works and lives in Scotland. She has exhibited and performed in various solo and group shows around the UK and internationally. Her work has been acquired for the UK National Collections, The Scottish National Gallery Collections, Glasgow Museums Collections and The Contemporary Art Research Collection at Edinburgh College of Art amongst other private collections. She represented Scotland at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022​.


Nicola Vassell Gallery

38 10th Ave,

New York, NY 10011

Alberta Whittle



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