The Sagan Standard

Liverpool Biennial’s rhetoric forgets about the art

This text was originally published in The Critic.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, or so goes the saying attributed to the late astronomer Carl Sagan. Sometime in the past twenty years, it became the norm for exhibitions of contemporary art to make extraordinary pronouncements about the nature of society, history, and politics. Curators of landmark retrospectives and biennials turned from using art to ask questions about the world as it was to framing it as they think it must become. 

Art should be extraordinary. But what if artworks are reduced to the status of illustration – extraordinary or otherwise – to back a curator’s understanding of the latest critical trend? uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things, this year’s edition of Liverpool Biennial, sets out to make many extraordinary proposals. In isiZulu, ‘uMoya’ means spirit, wind, or air, and it’s the curator Khanyisile Mbongwa’s contention that the wind she felt in her bones on first visiting the docks on the Mersey could bring a ‘reckoning’ from her native South Africa. That it could forward ancestral and indigenous knowledge but support artistic ‘unknowing’. That it may listen, repair, and examine colonial histories and legacies, but also help us hold each other without pain. This wish list continues in the curatorial statements that accompany the presentations of the 45 exhibiting artists, the majority of whose practices stem from the ‘Global South’: that artworks would speak to the forces of nature, advance processes of decolonisation, hold space, and heal generational trauma.

This kind of verbiage will be transparent to anyone who has paid any attention to the academic social justice discourse in the past few years. Between the lines, uMoya wants to be an ephemeral memorial to the slave trade built by artists who draw on the post-colonial experiences of their own lives. This is a radical proposal which should have turned the power paradigm of international art biennials on its head. But mirroring this review which gets through over three hundred words without mentioning a single work, the art in uMoya feels like an afterthought to an elaborate but not entirely convincing idea.

Ranti Bam, Ifas, 2023. Courtesy Liverpool Biennial. Photo: Rob Battersby.

Thankfully, many of the forms on show evade and sometimes undermine the exhibition’s heavy-handed rhetoric. The installation Respire (Liverpool) (2023) by Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński consists of video portraits of black people breathing in and out of red balloons, in an unescapable reference to the killing of George Floyd. On paper, this is not a subtle work, yet that its aesthetics is gentle and understated suggests that even the symbols of violence can be repurposed into meditation. Antonio Obá’s Jardim (2022) made of hundreds of brass bells mounted on wire constructs a deceptive hideout in which one could evade a predator but risk betrayal by even the slightest movement. The placement of Ranti Bam’s delicate and already distressed clay sculptures Ifa (2021-23) whose title means ‘to pull close’ in Yoruba in a publicly accessible churchyard that is the site of rowdy lunchtime picnics is a gesture of trust. These works thrive in contradiction.

The incongruity is apparent in parts of the show that try to cross the same river twice. Guadalupe Maravilla’s Disease Thrower (2019), a pair of tall, imposing sculptures made of objects which the artist found while retracing the migration journey that took him from war-torn El Salvador to the US at the age of 8 would confuse even an expert anthropologist. Rahima Gambo’s video and installation Nest-works and Wander-lines (2021) trace a hike through a rural environment of Burkina Faso, collecting natural and human-made artefacts as though trying to understand the language of the place with the tools of a photojournalist. What Maravilla and Gambo present are recollections and translations of experiences once felt but now inaccessible through the sensibilities of the present.

Mbongwa’s challenge is so boldly stated that it is sometimes difficult to verify whether the art supports her thesis. This is the case with works that she frames as explicit complaints. Francis Offman’s floor-based installation Untitled (2019-23) brings together copies of the Bible, encyclopaedias, and French grammar textbooks held up by callipers in an overt indictment of European culture on the grounds of scientific racism. But that the edition of the Bible on which Offman based this work was the same one his mother took with her while fleeing the Rwandan Civil War is something that the artist understood better than the curator.

Rahima Gambo, still from Instruments of Air, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

There are fleeting moments in the exhibition when this leads to strategic discomfort. Lorin Sookool’s outdoor performance in which the artist appears naked and DJs South African gospel choir vinyls while trying on costumes associated with the employment of black people in domestic service is difficult to watch. By embodying the racist stereotype a performing monkey, Sookool implies that we are all still as guilty as anyone, and that is, simply, guilty. But in a telling moment when she jokes that she “won’t ask the audience to pay for what their ancestors did”, she reveals that she doesn’t mean all of us at all. Is this supposed to be the blow that shatters the ‘white fragility’ theorised by Robin DiAngelo?

It would have been a more daring proposition to declare all of Liverpool a monument to the slave trade. Artists have made such gestures before. In 2012, Grupa Spomenik (The Monument Group), an association of artists who spent a decade trying to commemorate the victims of the wars that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, claimed Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit in London’s Olympic Park as a memorial to the concentration camp of Omarska in Bosnia. Omarska’s steel works were the site of detention for some 6000 Bosniaks and Croats, hundreds of whom perished. Mittal Steel, which sponsored Kapoor’s helter-skelter, purchased the Omarska site and resumed iron ore exploration only years after the last mass grave was exhumed, despite the vocal protestations of the camp’s survivors.

Mbongwa’s exhibition accuses the old world of moving on like AccelorMital and leaving the memory and pain of slavery to its descendants. But is this for lack of trying? While Omarska still has no memorial to the genocide it bore, the city of Liverpool’s cultural organisations have long understood their role in ‘rewriting’ history. The waterfront is home to the International Slavery Museum, for example. But in the Biennial exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Nolan Oswald Dennis’ mural-sized diagrammatic installation connects ideas such as memory, compensation, country, and apology in an intricate mind-map before conceding that “no conciliation is possible” in its very title. Tate’s permanent collection display The Port in the same building, on the other hand, opens with Hew Locke’s model Armada (2019) which, by investing the miniature boats with hope for safe return from sea, strikes a conciliatory tone. Kent Chan’s frenetic Biennial installation Hot House (2023) made in the storerooms of National Museums Liverpool pokes at the illegitimacy of UK institutions holding artefacts of other cultures, as though unaware that the city’s World Museum, also a Biennial venue, is busy publicly debating the fate of its Benin bronze collection.

The conceptually convincing response comes in Gala Porras-Kim’s fungal installation Out of an instance of expiration comes a perennial showing (2022) which starts as a white canvas coated with a growing medium encased in a transparent acrylic box. Before the exhibition, the artist visited the collection stores of the British Museum and allowed the canvas to absorb the bacteria and fungal spores that permeate the facility’s air. Blotches and blemishes will grow on the work while it is on display, eventually obscuring and destroying the canvas in testament to the still live nature of the world-spanning collection that inoculated it. How would one understand this? One line of inquiry could be to open the case and analyse the growth for traces of ‘foreign’ matter in the kind of forensic investigation of provenance and belonging that Mbongwa proposed. But to do so would destroy Porras-Kim’s work, although it would also help to spread further the global DNA to which the canvas had become a host.

Brook Andrew, still from SMASH IT, 2018.

This is a paradox because lines of responsibility are never straight, and the process of repair cannot be reduced to a slogan. So much is apparent from Nicholas Galanian’s Threat Return (2023), a collection of bronze casts of hand-woven baskets familiar from anthropological museums but cut so that they may be used as balaclavas in armed robberies, which is outright menacing because it draws a line between past cultural theft and today’s violent crime. This could be the ‘reckoning’ that Mbongwa spoke of. But the artist is aware that this is only a narrative. By contrast, his 2-minute video k’idéin yéi jeené (you’re doing such a good job) (2021) which shows the face of a smiling child to the soundtrack of parental affirmations and praise in the artist’s native Lingít language invests his indigenous community with the agency and respect that would resist the social ills that often plague Native American groups.

Elsewhere, the artist and academic Andrew Brook’s SMASH IT (2018) with the simplicity of a PowerPoint rams home the fact that Australia’s First Nations leaders are highly suspicious of the role of radical white activists in determining the fortune of their communities. This is the sentiment that the Nigerian philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò forcefully expanded in his 2022 book Against Decolonisation, arguing that the supposedly well-meaning impulse to ‘decolonise’ everything is a performance designed to deny the spoils of modernity to those whom it would ostensibly liberate. 

To its credit, that this Biennial is guilty of advancing half-considered curatorial ideas does not wholly invalidate its aims. Much will be gained from considering anew the status of embodied knowledges that crossed continents unwillingly and customs lost to colonial exploitation and its long aftermaths. But because the political stakes of this process are so high, it is doubtful that the contemporary art world can meet the Sagan standard in mediating the conflicting interests and perspectives when it pays so little attention to the knowledge and customs of its audiences.

Binta Diaw, Chorus of Soil, 2023. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photo: Mark McNulty

And even some of the artworks in Mbongwa’s exhibition know this. Binita Diaw’s Chorus of Soil (2023) is a near 1:1 scale plan of the 18th-century slave transport Brooks ship made of blocks of soil arranged into a seed atlas from which plants sprung up in memory of the 5000 people the vessel carried to the Caribbean. But already in the opening days of the Biennial, the seedlings were straining to catch the light from the windows at the Tobacco Warehouse, as though to suggest that this memorial should not be confined to this exhibition.

Liverpool Biennial continues until 17 September 2023 in venues across the city.
Main image: Nicholas Galanin kʼidéin yéi jeené (You’re doing such a good job)