by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
Liverpool has earned its spot in popular culture for its football team and for being the birthplace of the Beatles. However, before Liverpool FC and the Beatles came to be, the city was crucial to the expansion of the British empire, with its strategic location and favourable climatic conditions enabling the slave trade and the import of goods at the Royal Albert dock. It is this history that the 12th Liverpool Biennial commemorates. Now in its 25th year, the art festival is titled uMoya: The sacred return of the lost things. In conversation with STIR, art curator Khanyisile Mbongwa talks about her curatorial conception which facilitates evolved sensibilities to connect with our ancestral past and celestial future, to go beyond the colonial framework of our identities. The multitude of artists exhibiting at the art biennial aim to break away from the identity markers of colonial and postcolonial conditioning, by advocating for fluidity via performance art, moving image and liminal art installations.
Mbongwa, remarks that uMoya in English, translates to the wind, referring to the strong winds of the North West, which encouraged and favoured the trade of goods and enslaved peoples. She addresses the conceptual intervention of the port city's spine-tingling, hair-rising, and soul-stirring wind asking - how did the wind feel on the bones of her ancestors, who were trapped, bound, and "packed like sardines" while en route to a life of slavery?
The Liverpool Biennial exhibitions invite artists of colour, along with artists of diverse gender identities, to act as a microcosm of histories from the world's peripheries. Kbongwa suggests exploring the collective intimacy of the reluctantly inherited, now globally, English language, which then becomes an intangible structure that sustains the Western mode of thought. uMoya advocates for indigenous languages telling the stories of the indigenous peoples. Conscious of this, the artists at the Liverpool Biennial 2023 first acknowledge the past and then propose an alternative visual language to reinscribe the palimpsest of windswept histories and emancipate their ancestors and themselves from the colonial connotations. Samantha Lackey, Director of Liverpool Biennial 2023 adds, "They refuse a simple narrative of exploitation, choosing instead to express resistance, power, hope, and joy. They draw on ancestral and indigenous wisdom to point to the significance of forms of knowledge outside Western thinking."
Francis Offman, an artist from Rwanda now placed in Bologna, Italy, and his presentation at the Biennial is an ideal example for artists as a microcosm of histories from the peripheries. Offman's Untitled is a visual cue of how personal experiences are central to collective histories and identities. On visually assimilating the art installation, one can see a systemic, organised grouping of callipers piercing through books. These callipers were an extended social weapon of the Belgian colonisers, used to organise the Rwandan people into racial groups according to the measurements of their facial structures. The book represents the Bible, the only belonging Offman's mother fled the country with. Coffee, the largest export of Rwanda can be found on the cover of the books. The art installation in itself can be perceived as a metaphorical trade, social injustice of racial grouping in coerced exchange for coffee, fabric and paper.
uMoya embraces the indigenous mother tongue as a place of reckoning; it enables the emancipation of identities outside the colonial timeline of history. The language here is a persevering witness to enslaved ancestors' efforts of tending to the plantations and resiliently longing for manumission. Cosmically, centuries after, it has causally reaped into collective rigours enabling the sacred return of lost things. Isa Do Rosario's ethereal art installation, Dance with Death on the Atlantic Sea, and Binta Diaw’s Chorus of the Soil, directly interpret such a sacred release.
Argentinian Artist, Do Rosario's textile art is a permeable realm, offering a passage of a safe return for the souls lingering in the depths of the ocean due to the transatlantic slave trade. Engaging in a creative dialogue with Orixás, which are deities symbolising the forces of nature, Do Rosario manifests the life cycle through an interpretive memorial. Rooted in the African religion of Candomblé, which developed in Brazil during the 19th century, the installation introduces tiny black dolls Abayomi, which translates to a sacred meeting in the Yoruba language. These reimagined icons serve as a visual affirmation, intertwining abstract symbolism with the hope of salvation.
Diaw's art installation Chorus of the Soil also harbours the essence of emancipation. Diaw's visual art installation reinterprets the schematics of an 18th-century plan of the Brooks slave ship, which was launched at Liverpool and transported over 5000 enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean. The medium of the installation is soil and the seeds, drafting a hospitable environment for transcendence and growth, reclaiming the labour of tending as an emancipatory act in itself. The art installation borrows from the oral traditions, paired with a sound work with the voices of local people reciting the poem Zong! (2008) by M. NourbeSe Philip.
On asking Lackey what she wishes audiences to take away from uMoya, she says it is to listen, a skill that stems from being a love language and an intention to care, breeding courage to head towards a more aware, loving, and joyful future. Mbongwa also spoke about how her curatorial practice is embedded in listening. The skill has been borrowed from pre-colonial, traditional sensibilities favouring oral traditions as portals of learning and creating an original narrative.
Nigerian artist Rahima Gambo explores multisensory modes of communication to deviate away from inherited colonial methodologies of assimilation and perception building. She connects with the world through the medium of the body, which is the most solitary yet democratic medium of expression. Gambo uses the body as a mnemonic system in which walking retrieves a visual language. Video works Nest-works and Wander-lines (2021) and Instruments of Air (2021) delve into the history of language, embodied, and multisensory communication through speculative narrative-building. Employing an improvisational and open-ended method, Gambo's video installation serves as a time capsule, preserving her transitory memories of a rural setting in Laongo, Burkina Faso. Departing from conventional documentary story-telling, Gambo weaves a new tapestry of non-verbal communication, embracing gestures, silence, movement, symbols, and signs as vital components of her evocative narrative.
Another exhibiting artist, Torkwase Dyson, takes the intervention of the wind a bit further, portraying water as a paradoxical entity—simultaneously a symbol of liberty, terrorism, conflict, pollution, oppression, and refuge—particularly for Black and Brown bodies. The art installation Liquid a Place interprets the harrowing routes taken by ships that carried 2.4 million African slaves to their tragic destinies. The triangular gaps within the curved structures serve as a gateway, a shelter, and a reminder of the sombre histories of the surrounding docks and waterways.
The Liverpool Biennial's public programming is focused on attracting and weaving public interest into the curatorial concept. Its first phase, Opening Door, invites performance artists, particularly those who identify as black, brown, or queer, to use their bodies as the initial point of conceptual intervention, promoting an embodied understanding of the curatorial intent. The middle stage, Middle Passage, located at the Royal Albert Dock, draws a historical parallel to the transatlantic slave trade but repurposes it to discuss fluidity. Through moving images and workshops for the differently abled, it champions curator Mbongwa's aim to reject the static archiving of African ethnicity. The last phase, Reflective Return, encourages sound artists to contemplate and creatively reflect on repositioning African identities from the periphery to the centre. Public sculptures across the city challenge typical art spaces, stepping beyond the confines of conventional gallery settings. Thus, The Biennial creates a multi-layered narrative for identity and history beyond colonial acknowledgement.
Altogether, the Liverpool Biennial 2023 harnesses the power of contemporary art to unravel the intricacies of our shared past while navigating the realms of wind, memory, language, and ancestral wisdom. Each artist's work is a testament to resilience, unearthing narratives that transcend euro-centric perspectives of history and identity. The mindful curation invites us to delve deep into our identities beyond the shackles of colonialism and explore the multifaceted tapestry of human existence. Liverpool Biennial 2023 commemorates 25 years of story-telling and serves as a profound testament to the enduring power of art to shape our understanding of the world and ourselves while providing a platform that fosters meaningful dialogue.
The Biennial is open to the public till August 23rd, 2023.