uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things is the title given to the Liverpool Biennal’s 12th edition by curator Khanyisile Mbongwa. uMoya is isiZulu for spirit, breath, air, climate and wind. For Mbongwa, who is from Cape Town, South Africa, using her mother tongue was significant to presenting alternatives to colonial narratives, and asserting the aliveness of historically oppressed cultures, despite the trauma of colonialism.
This trauma is carved in Liverpool’s begrimed history, which, during the 18th century, saw the transformation of the former fishing village into the largest slave trading port in Britain. The city’s first recorded slave ship, Liverpool Merchant, set sail in 1699. Between 1790 and 1807, Liverpool accounted for over 80% of slave trade in the country before it was abolished. Ships departing the city transported hundreds of thousands of captives. The remnants of the wealth that came with the trade are still visible in the city’s imposing Neoclassical architecture, where little green space is seen between prideful edifices. The evidence of the city’s two decades as the most wealthy in the world obscures its muddy origins, the structural emblems of an exploitative past still standing strong.
For Mbongwa, the chilling wind in Liverpool – a wind she laments helped propel slave ships out to sea – called her to let the spirits of enslaved people return home from its carceral harbours through sentiments such as ‘care and repair’. Her own art practice and background in sociology informs an international approach to the programme, which features 35 artists spanning generations and geographies, specifically ones touched by British colonialism – of which there are many – including Bangladesh, Singapore, and Zanzibar. This diversity of perspectives is present at uMoya across 20 locations including five outdoor installations, and three main cultural institutions: Tate Liverpool, Tobacco Warehouse, and Bluecoat.
The curatorial choices that constitute the scaffolding of the Biennial propose an ‘intimate excavation of Liverpool’s history and temperament’ to inhabit and confront the enduring heritage of colonialism, an earnest desire fulfilled by many of the presented artworks.
Built between 1898 and 1901, Tobacco Warehouse is the largest brick warehouse in the world and the product of colonialism. Today, it hosts Senegalese-Italian artist Binta Diaw’s floor sculpture Chorus of Soil (2023). Diaw’s immense work is made of moist earth, outlining a replica of the Brooks ship that first departed Liverpool in 1781 and took 11 voyages of the triangular transatlantic slave trade route, carrying over 5,000 enslaved people. The Brooks is recorded to have violated the Slave Trade Act of 1788, by carrying close to 300 more slaves than the allowed 454 per journey in already extremely cramped conditions. The wide circulation of the document visualising the Brooks floor plan, picturing bodies packed side-by-side, reinforced the struggle for the abolition of slave trade.
The mounds of earth within Diaw’s ship’s outline poignantly resemble the rows of slaves on the ship. However sombre the shapes are, fragile plants grow from them towards the light of the windows of the building, exemplifying the potential for new life and suggesting that intergenerational healing can occur within colonised communities.
A 20 min walk from the Tobacco Warehouse on Princes Dock on Liverpool Waters sits 魯凱藝術家安聖惠在利物浦雙年展推出作品 – Ngialibalibade – to the Lost Myth (2023), an outdoor sculpture by the Taiwanese artist 安聖惠 Eleng Luluan, made using recycled fishing nets woven around a large steel frame shaped into a pottery vessel. The artwork is beautiful. Despite its industrial framework and scale, it has a softness; a sense of tactility. It is alien in this context, framed by the harsh surfaces of a gentrified neighbourhood that hosts the offices of insurance brokers and waterfront apartments.
魯凱藝術家安聖惠在利物浦雙年展推出作品 – Ngialibalibade to the Lost Myth stems from Luluan’s memory of growing up on the mountains in Kucapungane, Taiwan, by evoking the legend of Lu Kai. The legend narrates the story of the founders of the Rukai population, whose ancestors were born from pottery jars guarded by a skein of snakes. The artist, inspired by this legend and its symbols of regeneration and new life, has turned the jar into a giant, sacred vessel. The work could be seen as a form of return; rebirth. The structure, which could fit a human inside it, speaks to humans’ dependence upon this element for life and the concerns of the anthropocentric era.
The work is part of a series called 我在未來想念祢 – Ali Sa be Sa be (Earth and Rock Flow) where the artist invites us to consider our relationship to and reliance on water, as the region of Kucapungane is known for typhoons which are becoming more frequent as the climate destabilises. Ali Sa be Sa be draws connections between international waters, especially the pollutant flotsam and jetsam from fishing vessels, with the landslides and displacement of the village due to climate change.
During the press preview, the artwork was activated by a small ceremony, prepared by the artists who wore traditional Rukai garments, with dozens of tiny bells jingling in the sea breeze. At the base of the sculpture were several takeaway espresso cups, some of which appeared to be filled with grain or seeds, alongside flowers and cigarettes, which one performer lit in a ritualistic offering to leave burning upon fresh leaves.
The cigarettes used in the ceremony evoked how the tobacco trade relied on slavery. Ngialibalibade – to the Lost Myth is also situated at a location where bodies were placed into vessels to support and perform extractivist labour for merchants to profit off tobacco, sugar, coal, cotton and slaves during Liverpool's heyday. Despite this ritual being framed by massive structures, including an unfathomably large cruise liner emanating light jazz, the event summoned a freeing of spirits, the smoke escaping from the sculpture into the atmosphere.
Near the Princes Dock, within the gardens of St Nicolas Church, is another reference to historical extractivism. Ranti Bam’s artworks stand in wobbly brilliance here, at the burial site of Liverpool’s first recorded black resident, Abell (d.1717). As a gesture, according to the artist, of ‘rest, soothing and love’, the installation is composed of vessels that stand defiantly exposed to the elements. This series of artworks by the Anglo-Nigerian artist is titled Ifas (2021-2023) – which in Yoruba, means ‘to pull close’. These sculptural pottery forms are hugged into shape by the artist. In the artwork, the vessels are empty, but they carry the impressions of the artist’s own intimate and time-sensitive creation process. Like Diaw’s work, Bam presents a container as the potential site of healing with natural materials in an earthly environment where growth is more literally visible above Abell’s body.
In contrast to the installation of the aforementioned site-specific artworks in outdoor venues, the artists Edgar Calel, Fátima Rodrigo Gonzales, Gala Porras-Kim, Guadalupe Maravilla, Isa Do Rosário and Lubaina Himid are presented at the Tate Liverpool, the main location of the Biennial. Half of them exhibit large installations that transform thegallery’s white rooms into immersive installations without challenging or breaking the institutional frameworks. Among these, Untitled (2019-2023) by the Rwandan artist Francis Offman, caught me in my tracks, spellbound. The installation is composed of books framed and held up by callipers. Callipers are instruments used by Belgian colonisers during their settlement in Rwanda between 1918 and 1962 to measure the facial features of Rwandan people and classify them into racial groups. The books are presented like orderly school tables, which face a painted work which could be perceived as a blackboard. At the centre of the installation is Offman’s mother’s Bible, which she took as she fled the Rwandan Civil War. While the work is described by the artist as a ‘meditation on the Rwandan genocide’, the biographical narrative in the work speaks as one of many ‘collective histories’, a reminder that the stories of individuals can get lost in the generalisation of colonial brutality.
uMoya presents a vast representation of cultural perspectives which invite therapeutic processes, contemplation and healing for those affected by the brutality of colonialism, by virtue of their aliveness and creative responses to traumatic past histories, as well as embracing a relationship with the more-than-human world. However, while the works in the Biennial seemed to brush up against the walls of the infrastructure of colonial violence, they do not breach those walls, but sit neatly within them.
The reality of institutions like the Liverpool Biennial is more compromised by racial capitalism, as we read in the opening letter in uMoya’s guide, written by the Biennial Director Dr Sam Lackey, which appealed for economic support. With a lack of institutional funds, commercial and private sponsors have helped to commission works in this year’s Biennial. Perhaps most obviously is the support by Liverpool ONE, the city’s central shopping mall, of Rudy Loewe’s colourful outdoor sculptural commission February 1970, Trinidad #1 (2023) near the retail stores, which tells a story of, in the Biennial’s words, “a moment of Black Power revolution”, which will undoubtedly be lost on many passers-by.
In this context, one wonders how Lost Things will find a more just and equal position in society after their return if society still structurally replicates inequalities. Return complicates the title of the Biennial: Things removed from their cultural context can be reduced to spectacle within Western institutional frameworks. However, the Biennial asks for a reflection on the institutional co-responsibility of oppression and encourages art workers to provoke further, challenge and penetrate the edges to find breaches in established structures.
Through excavating the violence of colonialism, the Biennial presents insights into cultural practices, by those that live in deep inter-connection with their environments, with grief and hope. Unpacking uMoya, Mbongwa calls to presence the importance of listening to and trying to understand the more-than-human world and holding space for practices of attention, resilience and vitality, despite austere surroundings. In order to sustain and build upon these interactions, it is necessary for art practices to keep finding alternatives outside of anthropocentric frameworks, to communicate with the spirit, breath, air, climate and wind.
uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things will run until 17 September 2023 in Liverpool, UK.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Liverpool Biennial 2023, uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things. Installation view at Bluecoat. Photography by Mark McNulty
fig.1 Binta Diaw, Chorus of Soil, 2023. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tobacco Warehouse. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty
fig. 2 Eleng Luluan, Ngialibalibade to the Lost Myth, 2023. Installation view at Princes Dock, Liverpool Biennial 2023. Photography by Rob Battersby. Courtesy Liverpool Biennial
fig. 3 Ranti Bam, Ifas, 2023. Installation view at St Nicholas Church Gardens, Liverpool Biennial 2023. Photography by Rob Battersby. Courtesy Liverpool Biennial.
fig. 4 Francis Offman, ‘Untitled’, 2019-23. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tate Liverpool.Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial, Herald St, London; and P420, Bologna. Photography by Mark McNulty