Liverpool Biennial 2023: a powerful, city-wide study of the scars of the slave trade
By Alastair Sooke
June 8, 2023
The latest edition of Liverpool's contemporary-art biennial grapples with the legacy of the iniquity that once brought wealth to the area
Surrounded by peeling plasterwork in the basement of Liverpool’s Cotton Exchange, Khanyisile Mbongwa, a self-professed “sangoma” (spiritual healer), and the impressive South African curator responsible for the forceful latest edition of the city’s contemporary-art biennial, is grappling with the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade that once enriched this maritime Merseyside metropolis. We must, she tells me, “go into the wound – so we can see how we can heal.”
Those who are squeamish should stop reading now – because, throughout the city, Mbongwa has positioned artists of colour who make this “wound” visible. Centuries after the abolition of the slave trade, it is, seemingly, still festering, cankerous, and sore.
Inside, for instance, the vast brick Tobacco Warehouse on Stanley Dock, Binta Diaw’s “soil and seed map” reproduces, at “almost 1:1 scale”, the hold of the Brooks slave ship, which launched from Liverpool in 1781, as recorded in an 18th-century diagram; a similarly sombre mood suffuses a darkened space at Tate Liverpool, where three forbidding, graphite-coloured sculptures by Torkwase Dyson – beefed-up horseshoe magnets each weighing 700kg, with flaking surfaces like desiccated bark – resemble monumental grave markers. They’re a far cry from Ugo Rondinone’s jubilant stack of neon-coloured rocks, Liverpool Mountain, a 2018 biennial commission still outside on the Royal Albert Dock.
Over in the gardens of the city’s parish church of St Nicholas, Ranti Bam presents seven new sculptures from her “Ifa” series: crumpled ceramic cylinders, atop beehive-like wooden stools, which the artist embraces before firing, to imbue them with a seemingly squidgy, puckered, bodily quality. In the context of this churchyard, where Abell, a former slave, and the city’s first recorded black resident, is buried, Bam’s Ifas are funerary vessels fashioned with a hug.
Oil barrels piled high within a fragile wooden barque; a mural of a Caribbean coastal mangrove swamp; suspended sculptures of drowning figures transformed, by some mysterious sea-change, into outlines of vibrant coral: marine imagery, insistently reminding us of the watery trafficking of human cargo, is this biennial’s most common trope. Even Antonio Oba’s Jardim (2022), an installation of hundreds of brass bells swaying atop stalk-like stainless-steel rods at Victoria Gallery & Museum, like so many rustling reeds emerging from brackish wetlands, feels memorial: gently stroked, they toll softly for long-lost souls.
It is three years since the murder in Minneapolis of the African-American George Floyd, in response to which galleries and arts organisations have given unprecedented prominence to artists of colour; in selecting Mbongwa from the 50 curators to whom she spoke about the job, Liverpool Biennial’s director, Samantha Lackey, has followed suit. The result is powerful – but also, I suspect, tied to a specific cultural moment. It’s awkward and upsetting to acknowledge this, but engaging with such difficult and desperate history is at risk of becoming curatorially, and even artistically, conventional.