Reflections of healing and return, Khanyisile Mbongwa’s Liverpool Biennial

The insistence on being truly deliberately alive

It’s a cloudy morning in Liverpool, layers of different shades of grey overlap against a luminous white background towards the East, leaving space, now and then, for patches of clear blue sky. From the window of my hotel room, looking towards the Mersey River, the docks reveal their human mastery, the genius of their design, and the stillness of their water. Once bustling with harbour activities, they now lie empty between hotels and museums, luxury high-rises and memorials, just slightly vibrating on their surface, under the insistent blow of the same wind that instilled in men the intuition of their economic potential. The docks are so vast that their emptiness makes me want to search their depths, hoping to find a depository of the city’s history.

I am here on an urgent, last-minute, loving quest to attend the Liverpool Biennial on its second-last day. The biennial, titled “uMoya, the sacred return of lost things”, is curated this year by Khanyisile Mbongwa, “a Cape Town-based independent curator, award-winning artist and sociologist who engages with her curatorial practice as Curing & Care, using the creative to instigate spaces for emancipatory practices, joy and play”.

At its 12th edition, the Liverpool Biennial is the largest international contemporary art festival in the United Kingdom and was founded in 1998. In 2008 it was part of Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture and, in the words of Skinder Hundal, Director at British Council Arts, “it transformed the aspiration of the community by bringing to Liverpool a creative economy, public spaces regeneration, and employment opportunities”. For Hundal this was leveraged thanks to a “huge emphasis on volunteering, and the local art scene taking ownership of the event”.

Thanks to a participative approach it “involved and built confidence for young local curators and creative professionals, positioning them internationally in the following years”.

Thanks to its focus on public projects, the Biennial has proved itself vital for the community’s intercultural dialogue. As Hundal said in our call – “In a city where different communities came, settled and therefore created a new culture, the threads weaved by artists coming from different parts of the world allowed the dialogue to become more profound and after many decades of decolonization efforts, the language of creativity now offers a reflecting space, a space for reflection, ascending ideas towards an answer”. The last remark by Hundal goes to Khanyisile Mbongwa’s opening speech in Isizulu, “it was unusual, surprising, and welcome! It engages with our emotional intelligence, calling to celebrate indigenous knowledge, and to be more rooted with Mother Earth”.

Ranti Bam, Ifas, 2023. Installation view at St Nicholas Church Gardens, Liverpool Biennial 2023. Photography by Rob Battersby. Courtesy Liverpool Biennial

Khanyisile Mbongwa has arrived in the city with the “purpose and intention not to make life, but listening to the life being made”, as she will say in our chat a few days after the Biennial closed its doors. “I curate because I do not know – I am asked to forensically and ancestrally listen, lending my whole being to the practice of listening”.

Umoya, is a Isizulu word with meanings connected to spirit, air, breath, wind, and climate. “I did a lot of walking” – tells me Mbongwa – “I could feel the temperament of the wind, how it manoeuvres the city streets, as the city itself was breathing, in and out, stretching, expanding, contracting, the same wind that allowed Liverpool to become so central in the colonial economy and transatlantic slave trade.”

The Tobacco Warehouse, the largest bricks warehouse in the world, and the Cotton Exchange, are two of the Biennial’s main venues. They are both emblems and witnesses of Liverpool’s deep ties with the colonial economy and slave trade. Much like the vastness and emptiness of the docks, these venues evoke a desire in me to delve into their foundations searching for hidden chapters of the city’s history.

The Atlantic triangular slave trade, a three-legged exchange between the West coast of Africa, England, and Jamaica, meant that ships were able to sail from one port to the other making a profit at each stop, in the second two thirds of the trip being loaded with slaves or resources produced by forced labour in the Americas. “I never thought of imagination as having a shadow,” Mbongwa tells me when discussing the unexpected aspects of curating the Liverpool Biennial. “I believed imagination was life-giving, renewing. Then I saw how people built from their imagination, with the complicity of natural phenomena like wind and water. They did so with the undeniable intent of causing dispossession, displacement, and dislocation, extracting resources, and, most tragically, causing the deaths of countless people — a tragedy the world does not recognize as a holocaust.”

Rahima Gambo, ‘Nest-works and Wander-lines’ and ‘Instruments of Air’, 2021. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Open Eye Gallery. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty

The significance of Khanyisile Mbongwa as the curator of this year’s Liverpool Biennial is evident when exploring the numerous venues and artists’ interventions. This is further reaffirmed by her words in our conversation: “artists are all creating their own returns through different approaches and emancipatory practices, aiming towards healing, joy and an insistence on being truly deliberately alive”. Through my visit, it becomes evident that these artists are actively reclaiming and restoring what was stolen, abused, ridiculed, and exploited over centuries of colonialism. They open pathways for healing, acting as vessels to facilitate the return of lost things to their ancestral lands.

In the Tobacco Warehouse, my attention is captured by offerings on the floor and sculptures suspended from the ceiling. I’m drawn to a video installation and put on headphones: “I am an internationally acclaimed artist and I realized I am no different from the ancient guides who were performing in European circuses” – alluding to the disturbing 19th-century European trend of parading black bodies in freak shows or ‘human zoos’ – “Look here, I have found for you this primitive being who can sing and dance” – “we need to question the gaze, it still lingers amongst the offspring, question the gaze!”

Albert Ibokwe Khoza is a South African, “internationally acclaimed performance artist who continuously reveals and projects a state of mind of a loner individual who is a non-binary womanly man and a Sangoma (traditional healer)”. In our subsequent enlightening conversation, I will discover that Khoza prefers to use Isizulu pronouns – Nguye, yena, lo, u – acknowledging their gender neutrality. Khoza begun questioning the Eurocentric slant of education in South Africa and the idea of beauty that was being thaught while studying acting, dance and performance.“Eventually I knew that to become a creator I had to listen to my body. I am a big person, and I was big as a child, I doubted the beauty of my body for most of my life, then I learnt that it had the perfect structure for dance, theatre, performance. In fact, my body could speak for my ancestors.” Khoza’s performances emanate from a profound space of awareness “When I perform, I feel in me a giddy child willing to play, a man or a woman remembering the gift that I was given and its consequent duty, ancient royals who remind me of a legacy to reclaim, and my immediate ancestors who spiritually guide me to exist between the physical and cosmic realms. While I may be an artist, I can’t claim my work solely as mine; I am a vessel, channeling energies and legacies larger than myself.”

Nolan Oswald Dennis, No conciliation is possible (working diagram) (2018-ongoing). Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tate Liverpool. Photography by Neri Torcello

My exploration gains momentum, fueled by this initial excitement. I’m deeply touched by Rahima Gambo’s experiments with new forms of non-verbal language at Open Eye Gallery. Through movement, symbols, and silent gestures, she offers ways to understand the world beyond traditional spoken language. At St Nicholas Church Gardens, the resting place of Liverpool’s first recorded black residents and former slaves, I find solace. Here, Ranti Bam showcases her “Ifa” series: a meditative installation of hollow clay sculptures. Positioned on stools reminiscent of the Yoruba tradition, she seems to offer a tangible embrace, beckoning those souls to find liberation and return to their ancestral lands. At the Cotton Exchange, the air is tinged with essential oils. Lungiswa Gqunta employs these scents to evoke the unsettling odor of petrol, symbolizing the tense juxtaposition of privileged suburbs, townships, and political unrest in South Africa. Finally, at Tate Liverpool, I become immersed in Nolan Oswald Dennis’s expansive wall diagram, where “terms like decolonization, colonial compensation, reparations, and reconciliation can be seen as a condition and limitation of imagining a world beyond our reality”.

At every venue, the works of the artists mirrored that luminous sky I had been so taken with earlier. They radiated a joy rooted in the simple yet profound act of coming together to address the grey clouds of misunderstandings, fears, and deep-seated wounds. The theme of “Curing & Care” was undeniably manifesting. To echo Mbongwa’s words: “My aim is to instigate spaces for curing to happen, but I haven’t found a cure, as I don’t know the depth of the woundedness, we are equally responsible for the healing to take place. […] Love for me is a language, let’s enter into a romance together, to search into the places of suffering and trauma, let’s hold each other with something other than pain.”

As my day in Liverpool draws to a close, the brisk wind guiding me back to my hotel carries with it a newfound understanding: The ancient docks of Liverpool no longer beckon a deep dive into their abyss but rather invite reflection upon their shimmering surfaces. Liverpool’s colonial buildings aren’t relics to excavate but spaces to foster reconnection and community. By reflecting on our inherited image from our shared past, we can glimpse, much like the fleeting gleam of a fish beneath the water’s surface, our path to healing, joy, and our insistence on being “truly, deliberately alive”.

Neri Torcello
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