Dylan Huw on Liverpool Biennial 2023

Nicholas Galanin’s brief video, K’idéin yéi jeené, 2021, focuses on the artist’s child while an offscreen voice recites the words of the work’s title, which translates to “You’re doing such a good job” in Lingít, a language indigenous to North America’s Pacific Northwest. It’s the first work that you encounter at Bluecoat, one of eight venues of this summer’s twelfth edition of the Liverpool Biennial, and one that crystallizes many of the themes of South Africa–based artist and curator Khanyisile Mbongwa’s capacious and disarmingly gentle exhibition. Titled “uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things,” the biennial foregrounds structures (especially linguistic) that support transgenerational bonds and prioritizes active processes of producing joy and resistance within conditions of historical subjugation.

Liverpool was, for a time, the British Empire’s second city, its port lands central in the transatlantic slave trade. Several works—Ranti Bam’s “Ifa,” 2021–23, a series of sculptures in the church gardens where the city’s first recorded Black resident is buried; Torkwase Dyson’s Liquid A Place, 2021, a sequence of immense curved edifices that occupy the entire lower gallery of Tate Liverpool—mine a uniquely located pathos from this history. Yet for a show rich in installations that address, directly or implicitly, the ways in which legacies of imperial plunder manifest in the city’s present-tense psychological and geographical landscapes, its tenor is rarely oppressively grim. Metaphors of wind (“uMoya” is an isiZulu word for “spirit, breath, air, climate and wind”) invite associations between works that recast violence, trauma, and grief not as inevitabilities, but as conditions that might engender new knowledge and new vocabularies.

For the first time, Liverpool’s turbo-gentrifying north serves as the biennial’s base, with the Tobacco Warehouse—the gigantic epicenter of its bustling docklands—proving a particularly fertile setting for Albert Ibokwe Khoza’s The Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu, 2022, a live work restaged as an installation, encompassing a number of videos and two candlelit shrines, cobbled together from bones, plastic waste, flowers, and supermarket soft drinks. Khoza here interrogates the kinds of self-exoticization demanded of artists from sub-Saharan Africa in “international” contexts, while nodding to the biennial model’s complicity in these patterns of extraction, gentrification, and fetishization of the other. The work’s privileged space within the exhibition—and its productively discomfiting and energizing impact—is an indicator that this biennial has commitments in mind beyond lofty rhetoric.

Binta Diaw’s Chorus of Soil, 2023, samples audio of Liverpudlians reading M. NourbeSe Philip’s oft-appropriated found-text poem Zong!, (2008), alongside a bed of shoot-sprouting soil in the shape of a slave ship. The sounds seep into Khoza’s installation, unifying the works’ explorations of anticolonial emancipation across eras. Another sonic bleed occurs in Gala Porras-Kim’s six-minute sound piece Roll Call, 2023, in which the artist recites the names of deceased as if they were reincarnated as objects in museum storage. Intended as an exercise of active Indigenous conservation, the work is placed in the entrance corridor of the World Museum, rendering the artist’s voice nearly inaudible and somewhat dulling its impact. Porras-Kim’s wall-mounted muslin—featuring propagated fungal spores sampled from the British Museum’s storage facilities—at Tate Liverpool fares better, its liveness and evocation of art history’s subterranean formlessness striking an unexpected synergy with two early Lubaina Himid paintings hanging opposite.

The most memorable of the biennial’s specially commissioned outdoor works, and among its richest invocations of how ancestral knowledges might redress cultural wounds, is Eleng Luluan’s Ngialibalibade – to the Lost Myth, 2023, which is informed by the artistic inheritances of Indigenous southern Taiwan. This vessel of recycled fishing nets, docked within the River Mersey, was, at least during the opening, nonetheless dwarfed by an enormous cruise ship named Ambience. Another moment of symbiosis between the changing city and the biennial’s ambitious, if inherently limited, interventions occurred at the Stanley Dock. Brook Andrew’s NGAAY, 2023, a somewhat simplistic neon work spelling out variations of the phrase “to see” in various languages, was installed opposite a sign advertising luxury apartments at the Tobacco Warehouse complex, with the foreboding heading DREAM BIG.

Stay in the Loop

Get the daily email from CryptoNews that makes reading the news actually enjoyable. Join our mailing list to stay in the loop to stay informed, for free.

Latest stories

- Advertisement - spot_img

You might also like...