Liverpool Biennial 2023 – A Missed Opportunity

Liverpool Biennial 2023 – A Missed Opportunity

The Liverpool Biennial 2023, titled ‘uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things’, promised an expansive and thought-provoking exploration of Liverpool’s heritage, particularly its involvement in the slave trade. Largely, it fails to deliver. The festival aimed to connect historical narratives with contemporary artistic expressions, evoking a deeper and resonant aesthetic experience that raised issues of displacement, dislocation, healing and redemption. What we got is a collection of disconnected works that might be from almost anywhere and about anything.

The aim of this year’s Liverpool Biennial was to address the “history and temperament of the city of Liverpool in the form of a call for ancestral and indigenous forms of knowledge, wisdom and healing.” Taking its inspiration from the isiZulu language, ‘uMoya’ the title and name of this year’s festival means “spirit, breath, air, climate and wind.” However, and despite these virtues, the Biennial falls short of connecting most of these issues in a fully engaging experience, particularly one that is capable of offering anything profound and transformative.

At its core, the Liverpool Biennial 2023 demonstrated a commendable commitment to addressing Liverpool’s complex historical legacy. The exploration of themes surrounding slavery, colonialism, and the city’s involvement in the slave trade is, the festival curators argue, is a vital step towards fostering historical consciousness and acknowledging uncomfortable truths. The Biennial’s self-declared dedication to unveiling the scars of the past have the potential to serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of confronting and learning from history.

The problem, however, is the execution of this narrative, and the lack of local contextualisation, or sense of explicit reference to the proposed host community. The Biennial’s emphasis on rituals and ceremonies, as highlighted by many of the individual exhibitions, offered a glimmer of hope for more in-depth engagement. But this fails to materialise. The promised symbolic acts offering moments of healing and progress, in practice never allowed visitors any opportunity to reflect on the traumas embedded within the city. What we got was arts-catalogue determinism.

For anyone other than the most educated visitor, it would be difficult to see how the intentional focus on healing and redemption is manifested. The curators say this set of exhibitions is an opportunity to go beyond mere representation and to create spaces for transformative experiences. However, in failing to do this, even in part, the whole and entire conceit is pulled down.

Compared to the Biennial’s somewhat abstract and disconnected exhibitions, Tom Wood’s retrospective at the Walker Art Gallery showcases the power of relatable experiences. Wood’s sharp and affectionate observations of Liverpool, particularly those taken through the time of city’s decimation by de-industrialization, resonated deeply with anyone who lived through these moments.

Wood’s images, in contrast to the work shown in the Biennial, offer a direct connection to the lived experiences of Liverpool people and others in the 1980s and 1990s. Invoking a sense of nostalgia, empathy, and collective memory. By grounding his art in relatability, Wood succeeds in challenging, surprising, and inspiring visitors, creating a reminder of the need for a transformative aesthetic experience slowly and patiently built up over time.

While the Liverpool Biennial 2023 had its virtues, it fails to connect at a deeper and more resonant level, falling short of embodying the principles of its stated inclusive aesthetic experience. The exhibitions, when taken in total, lacks a cohesive narrative thread that is truly connected with Liverpool’s historical heritage and with the artworks on display. There is a sense that many of the works are half-formed, not fully realized, and disconnected from the local context. This fragmented approach undermines the Biennial’s potential to challenge, surprise, and inspire visitors.

For an aesthetic experience to be transformative, it must bridge the gap between thematic and symbolic aspirations and any relatable experiences that are called to mind. The Liverpool Biennial missed an opportunity to engage visitors on a personal and emotional level by not fully connecting with the diverse communities and lived realities of Liverpool, past and present. What was on display was strangely distant and indeterminate. By embracing a more participatory and co-produced approach, the Biennial perhaps could have fostered a stronger sense of connection, authenticity, and inclusivity. Where are the local artists?

One might hope that with a more fully realised framework of aesthetic experience, that encouraged a synthesis of modern and postmodern sensibilities – the metamodern – embracing both sincerity and irony, it would be possible to engage more successfully with complex narratives and topics outlined by the curators.

The Liverpool Biennial 2023, unfortunately, missed the chance to embody its worthy principles by interweaving historical consciousness with contemporary artistic expressions. There was little sense that the exhibitions aimed to foster a dialogue between the past, present, and future, and the festival’s fragmented approach and lack of relatability limited its ability to fully embrace metamodern principles. This is an exhibition that could be shown anywhere.

The Liverpool Biennial 2023 has been met with a range of responses from critics, with some praising its unflinching exploration of the city’s participation in the slave trade and others critiquing its execution. The Guardian lauds the Biennial’s focus on slavery and colonialism, describing the works on display as offering “devastating insights into the traumas of history embedded within the city.” However, the review also notes that some of the works feel “half-formed,” suggesting that the exhibition’s ambition may have outpaced its execution in some instances.

ArtReview commends the exhibition’s focus on rituals and ceremonies, which it describes as offering a sense of healing and progress. However, it also notes that the Biennial’s exploration of the legacy of slavery in Liverpool is somewhat uneven, with some works not fully realized. Wallpaper praises the Biennial’s expansive exploration of the city’s history, particularly its focus on healing and redemption. However, it also notes that the exhibition can feel somewhat disjointed, with some works not fully connecting to the overall theme. The Art Newspaper describes the Biennial as a “memorable but uneven event,” praising its focus on the past injustices of slavery and colonialism but critiquing its execution. The review suggests that the Biennial’s focus on the spiritual realm sometimes overshadows its exploration of historical and political issues.

Apollo Magazine praises the Biennial’s focus on ancestral and Indigenous forms of knowledge and healing, but also notes that the exhibition’s focus on identity can sometimes feel constricting. The review suggests that the Biennial could benefit from a greater focus on the future direction of art. Artnet News describes the Biennial as a “brave and valuable event” that goes beyond the standard confines of Western art curation. However, it also notes that the Biennial’s focus on the past can sometimes overshadow its exploration of contemporary issues.

The event is hosted city-wide, with the Tobacco Warehouse at Stanley Dock being used for the first time in the event’s history. The exhibition includes works by six artists, including an immersive installation by Albert Ibokwe Khoza, and live performances at the Tobacco Warehouse and the Cotton Exchange. Other venues include Tate Liverpool, which is showcasing an exhibition exploring life, death, and what lies between, and FACT Liverpool, where Belinda Kazeem-Kaminski presents a new commissioned, multiscreen video work. The review does not provide a critical assessment of the exhibition but offers a detailed overview of its content and themes.

A Disconnected Narrative

The festival’s theme, supposedly deeply rooted in the history and character of Liverpool, fails to resonate with the city’s vibrant cultural scene. The exhibitions, spread across various venues in Liverpool, feel more like an academic exercise than a celebration of art and culture. The curatorial approach is heavy-handed, with the works feeling more like visual aids in a lecture than independent pieces of art. The result is a series of exhibitions that feel more akin to a human-resources seminar than a vibrant arts festival.

The main theme of the festival, which explores the impacts of colonialism and the importance of ancestral and indigenous knowledge, is undoubtedly significant. However, the execution is bland and joyless, lacking the vibrancy and dynamism that one would expect from such a large-scale arts festival. The works do not engage with the cultural lived experience of people in Liverpool, creating a disconnect between the art and its audience.

The 2023 Liverpool Biennial fails to weave together the rich tapestry of Liverpool’s industrial and commercial past. The city’s history, steeped in maritime trade and industrial growth, is conspicuously absent from the narrative of the festival. The curators have missed a golden opportunity to connect the themes of the festival with the city’s historical and symbolic matters, resulting in an exhibition that feels detached from its locale. The festival feels like a brochure left in a waiting room, a collection of ideas simulated in the hope of drawing in customers to a simulated experience. The exhibitions do not engage with the audience on a deeper level, instead offering a superficial overview of complex themes and issues. The result is a festival that feels more like a marketing exercise than a genuine exploration of art and culture.

The dominant postmodern and post-structural mode of curation feels outdated and out of touch. The festival lacks the dynamism and interactivity of participative and co-produced works, which are increasingly becoming the norm in contemporary art. The curators seem to be stuck in a bygone era, relying on tired and overused curatorial practices that do not resonate with today’s audience.

FACT Liverpool – A Breathing Space: Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński’s work ‘Respire (Liverpool)’ at FACT Liverpool explores the precariousness of Black breathing and proposes breath as a means of individual and collective liberation. However, while the concept is intriguing, the execution lacks depth and fails fully to engage the audience. The piece feels more like a theoretical exploration than a visceral experience, leaving the audience detached from the subject.

Tate Liverpool – Redrawing Lines: The exhibition at Tate Liverpool features the work of 11 artists who act as cartographers, redrawing the lines of past catastrophes to create new possibilities. While the theme is compelling, the works do not push boundaries or challenge the audience’s perceptions. The exhibition feels safe and predictable, lacking the dynamism and creativity that one would expect from such a diverse group of artists.

Among the works exhibited, Torkwase Dyson’s abstract work ‘Liquid a Place’ (2021) is composed of three striking structural objects, signifying a gateway, a shelter, or the sailing route upon which 2.4 million enslaved Africans lost their lives. Edgar Calel’s work ‘Ru k’ox k’ob’el jun ojer etemab’el (The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge)’ (2021) presents stones as sacred sites of ritual adorned with fruit and vegetables placed during a private ritual during the exhibition installation.

Fátima Rodrigo Gonzales presents several works from her ‘Holograms’ series (2020-2022), alongside a newly commissioned textile work, ‘Contradanza’ (2023). Both explore how fashion photography often copies and extracts from aesthetics and traditional dress of indigenous people and cultures for commercial purposes.

Francis Offman proposes a meditation on the Rwandan genocide, an intimate reflection on how to convey history’s violent narrative through objects of personal connection. ‘Untitled’ is centred around a Bible belonging to Offman’s mother which accompanied her as she fled the country with her family following the onset of the Rwandan Civil War.

Other artists featured include Gala Porras-Kim, Guadalupe Maravilla, Isa do Rosário, Lubaina Himid, Nolan Oswald Dennis, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, and Shannon Alonzo, each presenting works that explore themes of history, identity, healing, and resistance.

Bluecoat Gallery – Joy Amidst Catastrophe: The exhibition at Bluecoat Gallery explores the possibilities for joy amidst catastrophe, using creativity to bring about emancipation from suffering. However, the works do not fully engage with this theme, resulting in an exhibition that feels superficial and lacking in depth. The artists’ exploration of joy and creativity feels forced and contrived, failing to genuinely engage with the audience.

Cotton Exchange – Resistance and Healing: The exhibition at the Cotton Exchange features the work of three artists who explore themes of resistance, indigenous knowledge, and ancestral healing. However, the works do not fully engage with these themes, resulting in an exhibition that feels disjointed and disconnected. The artists’ exploration of resistance and healing feels superficial and lacks the depth and complexity that these themes warrant.

The Cotton Exchange features the work of three artists who explore themes of resistance, indigenous knowledge, and ancestral healing. The Cotton Exchange, opened in 1907, was integral to Liverpool’s economic and societal history, as the city emerged as the world’s largest cotton market in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Lungiswa Gqunta’s sculpture ‘Sleeping Pools – Brewing’ (2023) is an illuminated bedframe filled with a petrol-like substance. Gqunta questions what it means to rest in the tenuous divide that separates public and private domains in South Africa, creating a ‘third space’ where the luxury of a suburb and the perceived threat of a township coincide. The work highlights structural inequity and poses an imminent threat to privileged entitlement.

Shannon Alonzo’s site-specific mural of charcoal and paint, entitled ‘Mangroves’ (2023), explores the Caribbean Carnival’s relationship to space: claimed and embodied, geographic and ideological. The mural references the entangled forms of mangroves, a symbol of the Carnival’s historic provision of a place of refuge and stability for marginalised people.

Sepideh Rahaa’s ‘Songs to Earth, Songs to Seeds’ (2022) portrays the often invisible and inaccessible process of rice cultivation in the paddy lands of Mazandaran, Northern Iran. The work centres the role of women’s labour, presenting the traditional songs sung by Iranian women during the cultivation and harvest seasons. These songs contain stories of their daily struggles in Mazani, an indigenous language from Northern Iran. The work invites us to consider the complexity and invisibility of rice cultivation in a contemporary, global context.

Open Eye Gallery – Colonial Catastrophe: The exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery features the work of three artists who depict the continuing colonial catastrophe. Sandra Suubi’s ‘Samba Gown’ is perhaps the most effective piece, with a tangible sense of irony and humour highlighting the juxtaposition of social status in a world of junk. Similarly, Rahima Gambo, a Nigerian visual artist who came to artistic practice from photojournalism and documentary projects, explores the territory between still and moving images as they intersect with “documentary, psychogeography, socio-politics, ecology, and autobiography.”

The works, we are told, “reject standardised and normative forms of communication, using movement, symbols, signs, gesturing, tracing and silence as preferred modes of understanding the world.” However, the works do not fully engage with this theme, or with Liverpool for that matter, resulting in an exhibition that feels superficial and lacking in depth. The artists’ exploration of colonial catastrophe feels forced and contrived, failing to genuinely engage with the audience.

St Nicholas Church Gardens – A Meeting Point: The exhibition at St Nicholas Church Gardens features the work of Ranti Bam, who has created a new meeting point for visitors to gather in mediation, contemplation, and discourse. The location is significant as it is the burial location of Liverpool’s first recorded Black resident and former slave, Abell (d.1717). Bam presents seven new sculptures from her ‘Ifa’ series (2021-23), inspired by the profound curative and narrative powers of clay. Through an intimate and time-sensitive creation process, Bam explores themes around fragility and vulnerability, intimacy and care, feminine labour and strength.

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