With Ceremonies and Rituals, the Liverpool Biennial Takes an Unflinching Look at the City’s Participation in the Slave Trade

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Large identical steel structures, reminiscent of the bottom of a ship’s hull, tower over viewers in a dimly lit room at the Tate Liverpool. They are smooth at the bottom, with hollowed out centers, while their top halves are coarse, as if their maker had extracted these forms directly from the water.

The trio of sculptures signify gateways, shelters, or sailing route between Europe, West Africa, and the Americas where up to 2.4 million enslaved Africans died. For many people visiting this year’s Liverpool Biennial, on view until September, this weighty artwork by artist Torkwase Dyson will be the first piece they encounter—and it sets the tone for the rest of the contemporary art festival.

The 12th edition of Liverpool Biennial, titled “uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Thing,” explores the dark relationship between Liverpool, slavery, and colonialism. While the U.K.’s history in the slave trade is far from unknown, many may be unaware that much of the wealth of Liverpool during the 18th century stemmed from its involvement with slavery, surpassing Bristol and London as the slave-trading capital in Britain by the 1740s. 

For “uMoya” (which means “spirit, breath, air, climate, and wind” in isiZulu), South African curator Khanyisile Mbongwa has invited 35 artists from across six continents whose work, as she described it in her opening remarks, encompasses “emancipation practices.” The curator noted that the biennial is an attempt to return “that which has been lost and taken from those who have been silenced or forgotten.”

Torkwase Dyson, Liquid a Place (2021). Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tate Liverpool. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty

Part of this return is the meaningful renegotiation of spaces with colonial histories. There is the Cotton Exchange, which was the epicentre of the global cotton trade, and the Tobacco Warehouse, a 14-storey building where imported rum and tobacco were once stored.

From its first installation to its last, the biennial does what it set out to do: it reminds Britain and the rest of the world of Liverpool’s colonial past. It does this by showing work by a set of vastly different artists. That said, there are rare moments that probe the city as it is today. Melanie Manchot’s film project is one of the few moments where the exhibition deals with Liverpool’s contemporary issues: Using professional actors and people in the local recovery community, Manchot’s work STEPHEN (2023) explores mental health and addiction in the city through a series of works, which culminate in an hour-long final piece. 

Among those artists at the Tate, one of the exhibition’s most well-known locations, is the towering British painter Lubaina Himid. The wall reserved for Himid is one of the few instances throughout the biennial dedicated to paintings that engage with subversive notions of the sea. Between the Two my Heart is Balanced (1991) reimagines a 19th-century James Tissot painting—instead of a white British soldier and two white women on a boat, we find two Black women ripping up maps. In Act One, No Maps (1991), two Black women at the opera look out onto a seascape.

Edgar Calel, Ru k’ox k’ob’el jun ojer etemab’el (The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge) (2021). Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tate Liverpool. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty

Beyond this, much of the biennial is devoted to video and sculptural pieces that are often ceremonial in nature. In Guatemalan artist Edgar Calel’s installation, The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge (2021), various fruit and vegetables have been strategically placed atop stones as part of a private ritual that took place during installation.

The public artwork at Liverpool’s historic Princes Dock, titled Ali sa be sa be (2023) (meaning “a large rock wall” in the Rukai language) by artist Eleng Luluan is inspired by the artist’s upbringing as part of the indigenous Rukai community in south Taiwan. The bulbous woven structure portrays the legend of the birth of the founder of Rukai, who is believed to have been born from a pottery jar protected by two snakes. 

Before it was sent and after it arrived at its location in Liverpool, Luluan’s translator, Apple, says they performed a “ritual of incarnation” on the work. If you caught Luluan’s piece right after the U.K. side of said ritual, among other things, you’d find various grains, slightly singed cigarettes, and foliage in front of it.

Eleng Luluan, Ngialibalibade to the Lost Myth, (2023). Installation view at Princes Dock, Liverpool Biennial 2023. Photography by Rob Battersby. Courtesy Liverpool Biennial

Additionally, the British-Nigerian artist Ranti Bam’s sculptural series Ifa (2021-23) is soft in its expression but still powerful. The piece made for Our Lady and Saint Nicholas Church Garden—the burial location of Liverpool’s first Black resident, a former slave—uses abstract sculptures formed by hugging clay structures as they harden, a process which Bam told me began one morning when she fell onto her sculptures “in supplication.” 

The name references two Yoruba words: ifá, a pre-colonial system of divination, and fa, which means “to draw” or “to pull” something. “These works conflate to mean drawing the divine close,” Bam said. Also subtle yet potent is Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński’s Respire (Liverpool) (2023) at FACT Liverpool, a multi-screen video work that commits itself to the idea of Black people breathing freely as a form of liberation by showcasing locals breathing through red balloons.

In contrast, in the Tobacco Warehouse, The Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu (2022), a performance by Albert Ibokwe Khoza, slaps you in the face. In it, Khoza exposes the shameful legacy of Black human circuses by tying up audience members and dressing people up in monkey masks while forcing them to dance. 

Albert Ibokwe Khoza, The Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu, 2023. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tobacco Warehouse. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty

Khoza’s show is unpredictable, absurd and at points darkly humorous, with its only downfall being that most exhibition-goers will not be able to experience the hauntingly magnificent performance live. Instead, they will find remnants of the event as an installation, including a shrine featuring cow bones, photography on the walls, and tutus hanging from the ceiling. After fully experiencing Khoza’s piece, it’s hard to imagine that these leftovers will provide the same effect, but that’s an inevitable byproduct of such a masterpiece.

At the end of the biennial, there are two questions still left unanswered. After all that has happened, where are we now? And, consequently, where do we go from there? Maybe that’s intentional. Perhaps those are ones for us to think about, now aided with knowledge of the city’s sordid hiwstory.

The Liverpool Biennial runs until September 17.

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