Liverpool Biennial 2023 explores the legacy of slavery

The Liverpool Biennial 2023, ‘uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things’, seeks a sense of healing as it explores the legacy of slavery in the city

Performance by Albert Ibokwe Khoza, a featured artist at Liverpool Biennial 2023
Ibokwe, Black Circus, 2022
(Image credit: photo by Sanele Thusi)

The Liverpool Biennial 2023 turns its lens on the legacy of slavery in the city, and asked South African curator Khanyisile Mbongwa to take on this challenge. 

The city of Liverpool, famous for its history of music and football, was at the epicentre of the transatlantic slave trade for over one hundred years and much of the city was built through wealth generated by the trade of goods and people. The United Kingdom and the world are finally addressing the reality of the slave trade and the art world has played a part in this, mainly through artists tackling this gargantuan subject and its continuing ripple effect on our society. 

Liverpool Biennial 2023: ‘uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things’

Eleng Luluan, Ngialibalibade to the Lost Myth, 2023. Installation view at Princes Dock, Liverpool Biennial 2023

Eleng Luluan, Ngialibalibade to the Lost Myth, 2023. Installation view at Princes Dock, Liverpool Biennial 2023

(Image credit: Photography by Rob Battersby. Courtesy Liverpool Biennial)

After walking the city, Mbongwa decided on the biennal’s theme of ‘uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things’, looking at care, breath and return in the city. The word ‘uMoya’ means air, wind breath, spirit and soul in Xhosa and relates to a sense of healing, of care, of passage, the sea and of return.

‘I have invited artists whose works really sit in what I call emancipation practices and these practices… really holding the space between woundedness and how we imagine ourselves through this woundedness for a possible healing to happen,’ Mbongwa said in her opening remarks.

Raisa Kabir artwork, painted red feet with thread

Raisa Kabir, Build me a loom off of your back and your stomach..., 2018

(Image credit: Courtesy of the Artist. Photo by Angela Dennis)

Installation view of Torkwase Dyson artwork

Torkwase Dyson, installation view of ‘Torkwase Dyson/ Liquid a Place’, Pace Gallery, 2021

(Image credit: ©Torkwase Dyson, courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo by Damian Griffiths)

The venues include spaces around the city relating to the slave trade – the cotton exchange, a tobacco warehouse – and a selection of Liverpool’s great art venues such as The Bluecoat, FACT and Tate Liverpool. Each venue has a grounding artist, explained Mbongwa, their work supporting the other works in the space. At The Bluecoat, it’s artist Raisa Kabir, who has a small retrospective; and at Tate, it’s Torkwase Dyson with the work Liquid A Place, 2021. 

Isa do Rosário artwork at Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tate Liverpool

Isa do Rosário. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tate Liverpool

(Image credit: Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty)

Artwork by Nolan Oswald Dennis

Nolan Oswald Dennis, No conciliation is possible, 2018 – ongoing

(Image credit: Courtesy the artist and ARoS Art Museum. Photo by Anders Sune Berg)

The works at Tate Liverpool include Nolan Oswald Dennis’ ongoing No conciliation is possible (working diagram), 2018-present, which is a ‘diagram tracing recursive structures of power through space and time’. It facilitates deep thought, and its lines, spirals, triangles and free-flowing circles join events, ideas, feelings, states of being and more in a work that spans the entirety of two gallery walls. 

‘I thought it was interesting that Khanyisile was interested in this work in this broader context of healing and return, which are often words that are thrown around easily and provide this sense that things are OK, without necessarily attending to the parts that are not OK,’ Dennis explained. ‘I think that work is really about trying to take healing and wounding seriously.’

Charmaine Watkiss artwork, installation view

Charmaine Watkiss, Witness, 2023. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Victoria Gallery & Museum

(Image credit: Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty)

All work in the biennial has a connection to the triangle of Africa-The Americas-Europe, and the 35 participating artists include Edgar Calel from Guatemala; Australian Brook Andrew, whose film SMASH IT, 2018, looking at Aboriginal identity is a standout of the biennial; and British Jamaican artist Charmaine Watkiss, who looks at slavery through the lens of her Ghanaian heritage. 

Not all works relate to slavery. The stunning feature-length film Stephen by Melanie Manchot looks at mental health and addiction in the city, while Benoit Piéron’s immersive work on his long-term sickness as a child speaks to hidden illness and care. 

Sandra Suubi Samba Gown artwork

Sandra Suubi, Samba Gown, 2021. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Open Eye Gallery

(Image credit: Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty)

Albert Ibokwe Khoza performance

Ibokwe, Black Circus, 2022

(Image credit: photo by Sanele Thusi)

While the individual works in the programme are great, it is the performances that really spoke to the heart of the biennial and a sense of healing. Sandra Suubi’s photography of a performance work looks at pollution in waste in Uganda, and is set around the centrepiece Samba Gown, 2021. Meanwhile, the incomparable Albert Ibokwe Khoza’s Black Circus, 2022, encouraged audience members to take part in his flipping of an all-Black human circus. 

The task the Liverpool Biennial 2023 has set itself is one it could never fully achieve, in that the scars of slavery on our society will always be there, but the excavating of these long-ignored histories in relation to our lives today felt like a good start. 

Liverpool Biennial 2023, 10 June – 17 September,

Amah-Rose Abrams is a British writer, editor and broadcaster covering arts and culture based in London. In her decade plus career she has covered and broken arts stories all over the world and has interviewed artists including Marina Abramovic, Nan Goldin, Ai Weiwei, Lubaina Himid and Herzog & de Meuron. She has also worked in content strategy and production.