Sometimes it seems that Liverpool struggles with culture, not least after its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, awarded in 2004, was rescinded in 2021. Perhaps against the odds, Liverpool Biennial has been going for 25 years. The pandemic shifted the 2020 edition to a socially distanced reduced version in 2021. What would this twelfth edition offer?
South African Curator Khanyisilie Mbongwa has carefully and intricately woven together a terrific set of shows under the umbrella title, uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things. In the isiZulu language, uMoya means spirit, breath, air, climate and wind. It’s an apt word for our times, encapsulating many of our post-pandemic concerns – the war in Ukraine, global unrest, climate catastrophe, racial and gender injustices, hostility towards migrants. Unfortunately, the list goes on.
The selected artists attempt to explore these themes and relate them in a specific way to Liverpool’s past while, at the same time, bringing, as Biennial director Sam Lackey says, “a perspective of historic acknowledgement that both connects to Liverpool’s colonial past but also uncovers possibilities for joy, healing, and aliveness in its future”.
More than a day is recommended to absorb all of the themes and messages, but here are some highlights.
The Cotton Exchange
Shannon Alonzo’s site-specific charcoal and paint mural Mangroves explores Caribbean carnival through Trinidadian mythology and the entangled forms of the mangroves which bind the earth and historically provided refuge and stability for a marginalised people. Alonzo was painting during our visit and will be back at work there during the first weekend of August.
In the room next door is Sepideh Rahaa’s Songs to Earth, Songs to Seeds, a film celebrating the labour of women in the rice fields of Northern Iran soundtracked with their traditional songs. Mesmeric.
The Tobacco Warehouse
Julien Creuzet’s suspended abstract forms combine to create an installation which addresses the artist’s relationship to the French colonialism of his ancestral home of Martinique. Meanwhile, visual artist Melanie Manchot has made an extraordinarily powerful film about addiction and recovery. STEPHEN is based on the real-life story of Thomas Goudie who was arrested on a charge of embezzling money to support his gambling habit and whose story was filmed as a true-crime reconstruction in 1901 by Mitchell & Kenyon. Made with a mixture of professional actors and local people, Manchot’s version stars Stephen Giddings who himself is recovering from addiction. At 78 minutes it is difficult to fit in, but hugely worthwhile.
Binta Diaw’s Chorus of Soil uses soil to recreate, to almost life-size scale, that illustration of the 1781 Brooks slave ship. Each sod of earth represents one of the slaves, tightly packed one next to the other. A new sound work incorporating voices of local people allows it to speak of collective mourning, as the soil, referencing the plantation, reclaims the labour and reinterprets it as fertile ground. Shoots were already peeking out on our visit.
Also represented here as an installation is Albert Ibokwe Khoza’s performance piece, The Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu. Those of us lucky enough to attend the preview were privileged to witness the show itself – a beautiful and justifiably shocking reflection on the shameful legacy of ethnological expositions that were popular in Western society from the 1870s right through to the 1960s. It examines the ongoing pain of historical and continuing racism. Just looking at the displayed artefacts which formed the performance conjures an idea of the impact of the colonial gaze.
Outside the Tobacco Warehouse (and better viewed from the Titanic Hotel) is Brook Andrew‘s NGAAY, a large-scale neon work combining various languages to symbolise the cultural and linguistic diversity of Merseyside. Ngaay means ‘to see’ in Wiradjuri.
Over at the Open Eye Gallery is Rahima Gambo’s entrancing Nest-works and Wander-lines and Sandra Suubi’s powerful Samba Gown. Around the corner in St Nicholas Church Gardens are Ranti Bam’s stunning terracotta sculptures from her Ifa series. The public is invited to ‘gently engage with these works, whilst being mindful of their delicate nature’. On the day we went, people were sunbathing next to them.
Tate Liverpool is crammed with highlights. Of particular note is Gala Porras-Kim’s work questioning museum storage systems. Over the course of the show, the various bacteria will tell their own stories. Porras-Kim also has work at the Victoria Gallery & Museum (worth a visit for the building alone) and at the World Museum. And at Bluecoat, Raisa Kabir investigates Liverpool’s part in the story of cotton and the East India Company through her ongoing work Utterances: Our vessels for the stories, unspoken using woven text, textiles and sound.
If you’re lucky enough to live or work in Liverpool, you can dip in again and again. We’ll be back to take in more of this powerful, hard-hitting, but ultimately generous celebration of the power of contemporary art and its potential to effect change.
Main image: Albert Ibokwe Khoza, The Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu, 2023. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tobacco Warehouse. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photo by Mark McNulty.
Liverpool Biennial runs until September 17, 2023. For more information, click here.