In a dark room two huge black sculptures of a semicircular shape with a triangular gap at the bottom.

Reversed Cartography:
on Liverpool Biennial 2023

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

This year’s Liverpool Biennial, titled uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things, has its festival base at the Tobacco Warehouse on the Stanley Docks at the edge of the River Mersey. In the isiZulu language, ‘uMoya’ means spirit, breath, air, climate, and wind.

As the largest brick-built building in the world, the imposing warehouse was used to store vast quantities of tobacco and rum, when Liverpool was at its trading peak as the second largest port in the UK involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Tobacco Warehouse remains a brick signifier to Liverpool’s central role in forced global migration.

Liverpool is more advanced than most British cities in addressing its part in the horrific colonial Transatlantic Slave Trade, with the establishment of the International Slavery Museum in 2007 and many local historians who continue to uncover the city’s hidden histories. Nonetheless, this year’s festival theme is an appropriate response to the recent calls for more conversations about the global systems of racial discrimination and oppression in world history.

This year’s festival is a striking expanse of curatorial work by Khanyisile Mbongwa that primarily addresses the African diaspora. Mbongwa has stated that she has curated this festival to ask and answer questions about the links of the city of Liverpool with the colonial catastrophes of enslavement that impacted the continued growth and development of the African continent and its peoples.

As a member of the African diaspora, the festival’s curation feels personal to me – as if it was designed for me. Yet I wonder how other members of the Global Majority will experience it, and I wonder how white people will experience it.

Before I had even set foot into an exhibition space, the depth and range of works catalogued in the festival guide deeply moved me.

The biennial guide suggests multiple route options between this year’s thirty-five featured artists’ work located across heritage sites, museums, galleries, and public spaces in the city. The artists have reversed the routes from places such as the Caribbean, Iran, Uganda, Indigenous Australia, South Africa, and Nigeria to one of the centres of the British Imperial past. This festival is a temporary occupation of several historically colonial spaces in Liverpool.

Newly commissioned projects explore hidden or untold stories within familiar Liverpool sites and bring new perspectives to old spaces. Overall, the programme fights against the erasure of truths, of memories, of injustice against the human trafficking of Black bodies. This curation is a truth-seeking exercise.

By enabling global and local artists to occupy space in Liverpool’s centres of historic colonial enterprise, this year’s biennial almost reimagines Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness (1899)by bringing the evil deeds of colonialism, and the darkness of the psychic interior of British civilisation, to light: this is in direct opposition to the British Imperial ideas of Africa as the dark continent that seemingly necessitated external European exploration and mapping.

There are eight exhibition spaces including the new biennial festival hub at the Tobacco Warehouse: Tate Liverpool, FACT, Bluecoat, Open Eye Gallery, Victoria Gallery & Museum, World Museum and the Cotton Exchange. There are an additional five outdoor installations at sites including Liverpool ONE, Princes Dock, Stanley Dock and St John’s Garden.

The exhibit that first caught my attention was Sengalese-Italian artist Binta Diaw’s ‘Chorus of Soil’ (2023) – a soil and seed map of the 18th-century Brooks slave ship, rendered almost to-scale in the Tobacco Warehouse.

The Brooks departed Liverpool for the West Coast of Africa, from where it forcibly migrated several thousands of Africans to labour on the plantations in the Caribbean. The installation gives back the displaced people of the African diaspora the physical space they have been denied in historic and contemporary narratives.

Inside a warehouse the floor is covered with soil where new seedlings are sprouting.
Binta Diaw, ‘Chorus of Soil’ (2023). Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tobacco Warehouse. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty.

‘Chorus of Soil’ showed me the human element that was always missing in the negative representations of Africans in the standard British school curriculum, where Africans were seen as chattel – property, rather than independent, intelligent human beings.

Diaw says that the establishment of this artwork in Liverpool is a ‘personal attempt to correct things’, and she would like it to be ‘a moment of regeneration’. This site-specific installation is both an opportunity to be present inside the spaces that perpetuated colonial violence, and an opportunity to transplant and nurture new meanings through contemplation of the materials: soil and seeds. This exhibit is a chance to imagine the number of people forcibly confined in the restricted hold of the Brooks, to maybe feel empathy, to care, to love and begin to understand the experience of others who are permanently linked to similar spaces. It is an invitation to examine the systemic dehumanisation and racialisation of African bodies and the false notion that blackness is inferior to whiteness.

I imagined the close quarters of the people represented here by seedlings, their existence in the dark, dank space at the bottom of the Brooks, their confusion about this unexpected change in their life circumstances, their yearning for the light and freedom to exist in the same way the newly sprouted plants were leaning towards the sun through the tall windows.

I imagined the people gasping for air and I remembered George Floyd, who on 25 May 2020 was suffocated in broad daylight in the USA by Minneapolis policemen, and his last repeated words, as they knelt on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, were ‘I Can’t Breathe’.

This televised action of the oppressive knee of whiteness pressed against the throat of a Black person’s body was to become the ignition of a social change movement across the globe.  People were witnesses to this crime as prisoners in their own homes at the start of the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Although after my first encounter with ‘Chorus of Soil’ I was enthused at the opportunity to see many more works of contemporary art, it also felt overwhelming and potentially traumatising, after the absence of Black representations by Black artists in public – so-called white – spaces, for decades. Liverpool, for all its commendable progress, does still have a particular issue in this regard, especially in the city centre.

I kept staring at ‘Chorus of Soil’, drawn in by the imagined noise of the ancestors telling their stories, reciting their names, planning the return to the familiar soil of their homes, hoping for a different chapter to unfold. For me, this artwork became another ‘I Can’t Breathe’ experience embodying uMoya:the combined elements of the spirit, the breath, and air. 

I experienced a temporary inability to breathe as I observed the historical truth of British human trafficking realised in a British public space – it was the same thing I experienced when I was an unwilling witness to the injustice meted out to George Floyd, and to innumerable others like him.

It always feels personal when acts of inequality and injustice take place, anywhere in the world, especially when they are enacted on the displaced members of the African diaspora. They are echoes of the past that persist, as if being transported around the globe on never-ending winds. It therefore becomes necessary for me to take a step back and make time for self-care and healing after being reminded of the generational trauma of the African diaspora’s ancestral past.

Diaw’s work in the soil and seed installation is accompanied by a haunting sound installation that features the voices of local people reciting the poem ‘Zong!’ (2007) by Caribbean Canadian author M. NourbeSe Philip. It adds to the sense of being disjointed and cast adrift in the vastness of seemingly endless water, and resonates long after the initial sight of ‘Chorus of Soil’.

Each person who visits this large-scale artwork will have their own interpretation and experience. The space challenges the visitor to pause, to listen, to be a part of the new and constant growth – there is no stasis here. The journey is personal.

My experience was akin to visiting a sacred space like a church or temple, where you go to remember the past and maybe start to heal from the trauma of previous events. ‘Chorus of Soil’ is a memorial and a reminder that the soil and seeds are themselves sources of all we are as human beings. It speaks for itself.

The free events of the biennial take place in three stages, creating a triangle intended to mirror the journeys undertaken during the Transatlantic trade of enslaved people. The stages are: The Opening Door (with primary focus on live art and public installations where the artists use their bodies as vessels and vehicles for change), The Middle Passage (centres around movement, short films, and live activations) and The Reflective Return (concentrated around artist talks and music).

This biennial collection encourages audiences to examine the historic consequences of divisions of cultures, spaces, places, and peoples; it is an overwriting, and a rewriting of the social, political, and economic geography of spaces when linked to a thorough artistic interpretive review of global, local and personal history.

The St John’s Garden exhibition space is where Nicholas Galanin’s ‘Threat Return’ (2023), seven -bronze-cast handwoven basket-style mask sculptures are set on concrete plinths. Located in close proximity to several local galleries and museums containing items from all over the world, it is a reflection on what is considered theft. It invites discussion on both the theft and return of cultural property, energy, memories, traditions, and languages.

Seven concrete plinths on a lawn with trees in the background. Small metal basket like sculptures on each plinth.
Nicholas Galanin, ‘Threat Return’ (2023). Installation view at St Johns Gardens, Liverpool Biennial 2023. Photography by Rob Battersby. Courtesy Liverpool Biennial.

Tate Liverpool is home to the work of eleven artists, including two subversive pieces, one by the renowned Lubaina Himid, ‘Between the Two My Heart is Balanced’(1991), and the other, a large installation in the Wolfson Gallery of Torkwase Dyson’s abstract work, ‘Liquid a Place’ (2021).

Himid’s ‘Between the Two my Heart is Balanced’ is a vivid acrylic painting on canvas that depicts an unusual form of interaction between two Black women with the sea. The women – one dressed entirely in red, the other in a black head wrap and a long, patterned, black, grey and cream gown that appears like a cage on her body – are visualised in the boat charting their own new route, as they work together to destroy pre-existing maps and charts; they drop the torn fragments of their dismantled reality into the ocean and move forwards. Himid’s painting uses an intimate setting, the viewer located in the boat with the subjects. It is as part of her dedication to uncovering marginalised and silenced figures, histories and cultural expressions, that she invites people to become a part of the story.

The three structural objects of Dyson’s ‘Liquid a Place’ are composed of ‘hyper shapes’, that the artist says she creates from the geography, geometry, and architecture of different conditions of the enslaved. Dyson says that these shapes are ‘an amalgamation of conditions of Black people who self-liberate in architectures of dispossession’. The curved, obsidian-looking constructions resemble the hull of a ship, and are centred by unoccupied triangular spaces, denoting a loss, an absence, and maybe the Transatlantic sailing route where millions of lives were lost and the African Holocaust occurred. The bottom halves of the objects are polished smooth while the upper halves have a rough, irregular finish.

Dyson’s work centres on the exploration of water and its connection to colonialism, the climate crisis, and Black history. This installation recreates the body, a place of around sixty percent water, as holding memories and information as it navigates and negotiates its way through colonial landscapes from systems of destruction and expropriation to liberation.

The act of igniting and preserving memory in these Liverpool spaces is an act of repossession, an act of creating Sites of Conscience, places where memories can be dissected, spaces where their influence, limits, and complications may be analysed. These collected artworks bring multiple histories to a contemporary audience. They give us a place to celebrate resilience, the ability to keep breathing, and also a place to mourn the racial violence from Imperial States.

It takes great courage to face and curate the facts. This biennial curation may cause discomfort in some circles, and also prompt difficult conversations following personal and social reflection.

uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things is a festival which takes a breath, makes visible the invisible, it gives space and form to precious elements of unspoken conversations. It is an essential stop on the contemporary journey of social change amidst delicately curated questioning. This curation of art is a reassembling of a global jigsaw by children of the colonial empires; is a cartographic reversal, a time to redefine lines of existence by site-specific historical remapping.

Can what has been lost ever been returned? The question will be asked as long as the winds circumnavigate the globe. The repossessed Liverpool spaces of the biennial are temporary ports where global art has anchored, and these locations are made sacred by the presence of the art. Liverpool Biennial 2023 has created an opportunity to pause, if just for a moment.

To me the festival feels like entering the portal on the other side of the ‘door of no return’ in Elmina, Ghana – a whitewashed slave fort from where millions of Africans were shipped to a life of slavery in the Caribbean, Brazil, and America between the 15th and 19th centuries.

I see uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things as a much-needed starting point. It is an opening of a door. Liverpool is an ideal location to restart conversations about the international significance of this part of the world and its involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and how it influenced globally significant demographic changes.

This biennial festival highlights the continuing global systems of oppression that are based on genocide, displacement, elimination of indigenous peoples, while celebrating and centring the African diaspora’s communities and cultures.

This festival is one of hope. It moves marginalised existences to the centre of social consciousness, nurturing healing spaces. It enables the reversal of imposed British Imperial cartographies: of peoples and nations, and perhaps it even enables the return of lost things.

Liverpool Biennial 2023, uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things, 10 June – 17 September 2023

Marjorie H. Morgan is an award-winning playwright, director, producer and journalist based in Liverpool. Her works explore the themes of ‘Home’ and ‘Identity’, in particular historic and contemporary migration stories, giving voice to those marginalised in pockets of British society. Marjorie also writes articles and essays, and teaches creative writing.

This exploration is supported by Arts Council England as part of Corridor8’s commissioning programme.

Published 29.06.2023 by Jazmine Linklater in Explorations

2,449 words