Amie Soudien

Alberta Whittle 2.jpg

Alberta Whittle, between a whisper and a cry, 2019. Courtesy of the artist + Dundee Contemporary Arts

Through the gritty lens of a cell phone, a palm tree bends impossibly under gale force winds. The curvature of its trunk seems miraculous until it snaps clean, like a twig underfoot. 

Seen through the lens of 2020, Alberta Whittle’s film between a whisper and a cry (2019) encapsulates the smothering reality of collapsing global systems, both ecological and economic. As the film flits between archival footage, video imagery of performers and worshippers, 3-D animated renderings of hurricane forecasts and cellphone clips of palm trees weathering storms, Whittle brings the colonial implications of the global climate crisis home. 

One of these “homes” is Glasgow, Scotland, whose businesses, institutions and city infrastructure the plantation and slave trade made possible. The River Clyde was once the heart of the city’s shipping industry, linking Glasgow to the Americas and the Caribbean. Sugar and tobacco, among other commodities, poured into the port, bringing about a new class of wealthy and influential merchants. 

Filmed in the Clydeport Building, in an extended scene, Whittle and Sabrina Henry lounge, as Divine Tasinda dances on in a sailor’s uniform. Built in 1858, the building was then known as the Clydeport Navigational Trust building, a place to gather the stakeholders in the river trade. The wood-panelled room appears circular with a high ceiling. Old-world opulence screams from the hand-carved wooden sculptural details, the monogrammed leather-backed chairs, twin white marble columns, and a painting of rough waves meeting shoreline in a gold frame. Some 200 years after the abolition of the slave trade, it’s a dance in the house that the plantations made: a dance in a house built to last. Sun Ra’s Enlightenment (1959) provides the score. Although the movement is energetic, the atmosphere is neither gleeful nor joyful, but focused; the performers’ gazes are clear and unrelenting.

In a split screen, the contemporary dance scenes play alongside archival footage of Black workers in factories and fields. Whittle illustrates how the Caribbean hurricane season, much like the harvest, functioned as a marker of time through the inclusion of the adage: 

June too soon… 
July stand by 
August, come it must 
September remember (!!) 
October all over.  

Punctuating the film, the adage appears like a title card, superimposed on dark manufacturing plants, a blue tarpaulin whipped about on a beach, a hazy view of fishing boats beyond a pier, and an oceanic horizon with blue sky. This imagery speaks to the weather’s participation in the machinations of capital, and now, the machine’s impact on the weather: the inescapable correlation between environmental change, and the establishment of an extensive network of plantation corporations in the colonies which would become the foundations for the multinational corporations in operation today.  

Recalling the details in the ledgers, the figures recorded and accounted for – what (and who) was lost and gained – along the River Clyde and in the many offices, businesses that supported international trade, Whittle brings the legacy of enslavement back to its home of origin, raising the question of a presumed white innocence and taking a sharp turn towards accountability.