At the end of the 12th Liverpool Biennial, we look back at ‘uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things.’
Now in its 25th year, Liverpool Biennial has become a beloved part of Liverpool’s cultural calendar. Since its inception in 1998, the Biennial has commissioned a staggering 380 artworks, forging a connection between international art and our city. From their home here in the Baltic Triangle, they organise a festival programme committed to bringing free, accessible art to public spaces across Liverpool.
This year’s Biennial carries with it a profound message, curated by the talented Khanyisile Mbongwa. It boldly acknowledges Liverpool’s colonial past while simultaneously offering a vision of ‘joy, healing, and aliveness’ for its future. The themes explored in ‘uMoya’ are as vast and diverse as the global reach of the festival itself. From ancestral culture to the lasting impacts of colonialism, climate change, catastrophe, conservation, and the essence of aliveness, the artwork presented here spans the globe. It draws inspiration from cultures across East and Southern Africa, East and South Asia, North and South America, the Middle East, Oceania, and Europe.
From June to September, Liverpool Biennial graced 13 different venues and locations; and showcased the works of 35 incredibly talented artists. In this blog, I delve into some of these captivating installations and highlight my personal favourites from this year’s unforgettable festival. So, join me as we embark on a journey through ‘uMoya.’
Artist: Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński (Austria)
Location: FACT Liverpool
“Respire (Liverpool)” (2023), explores the concept of Black breathing and its precarious nature. It proposes breath as a means of both individual and collective liberation. The exhibition fully occupies the gallery space, immersing visitors in a unique experience. Upon entering, I was in darkness, with the only presence a haunting, breathy soundscape and accompanying video.
The room is alive with sound, and you can physically feel the vibrations coursing through the floor. In the centre of the room, a pool of water ripples in response to the sonic environment. The central focus of this exhibition is the participants themselves. Their presence and experiences are at the heart of Kazeem-Kamiński’s thought-provoking exploration. Filmed here in Liverpool with local participants, the exhibition examines breathing freely, while facing the weight of ongoing cultural history.
Artist: Sandra Suubi (Uganda)
Location: Open Eye Gallery
“Samba Gown” (2021) is a powerful “statement of resistance.” The remarkable dress is the first thing I saw entering Open Eye Gallery and has a fascinating backstory. Suubi created the gown to re-enact the 1962 Ugandan independence ceremony as a wedding ceremony. The wedding concept was symbolic, representing Uganda’s entry into a binding contract with its former colonisers.
Beyond its symbolic narrative, “Samba Gown” also addresses the pressing issue of plastic pollution. The dress is constructed from plastic waste and adorned with words of protest against the enduring repercussions of colonialism. Accompanying this thought-provoking piece are stunning photographs of Suubi wearing the dress while wandering through Banda market in Wakiso district, Uganda. These images beautifully showcase both the artist’s elegance and the underlying messages of resistance and reflection.
Artist: Antonio Obá (Brazil)
Location: Victoria Gallery & Museum
“Jardim” (2022), encourages visitors to actively engage with the piece in the Victoria Gallery and Museum. As you walk through the gallery, you hear the distant chiming of bells, drawing you into the interactive installation. Visitors can reach out and ring the bells or brush past them as they take in the installation.
The arrangement of the bells evokes the sense of a hideout. By ringing them, participants assume the roles of ‘both the hunter and the hunted.’ Obá’s artistic process involved in-depth research into hunting environments, reflected in the work’s intricate design. The bells hang on top of long metal stalks, which gracefully sway back and forth when touched, reminiscent of the gentle swaying of grass.
Artist: Gala Porras-Kim (Colombia)
Location: World Museum
“Roll Call” (2023) is an audio installation that resurrects individuals who have passed away and been reincarnated into objects now in the museum’s collection. As I entered the museum, I could hear the names being called out in a rhythmic fashion. This steady roll call provides a faint hum as visitors make their way into the museum.
It’s believed the individuals left instructions for their names to be spoken as their physical remains were preserved. Through this artwork, Porras-Kim pays homage to their dying wishes by filling the space with their whispered names. “Roll Call” prompts us to think about the ethics of conservation and museum practices, particularly in the context of global cultural heritage.
Ngialibalibade – to the Lost Myth
Artist: Eleng Luluan (Taiwan)
Location: Princes Dock
“Ngialibalibade – to the Lost Myth” (2023) draws its inspiration from the artist’s childhood memories within the indigenous Kucapungane community. I first saw this remarkable structure crossing the Princes Dock Footbridge. The bridge’s architecture frames the sculpture, mirroring its unique shape. The placement of this artwork between Princes Dock and the River Mersey symbolises our connection to and reliance on water resources.
“Ngialibalibade – to the Lost Myth” tells the tale of the ‘legend of the founder of Rukai,’ who, according to belief, was born in a pottery jar and safeguarded by snakes. It is a continuation of the series “Ali sa be sa be” which, when translated, means ‘large rock wall’ referencing the landslides and extreme weather in southern Taiwan. This piece, made from recycled fishing nets, is a commentary on the issue of climate change, which exacerbates natural disasters in this region leading to the displacement of entire indigenous communities.
Artist: Ranti Bam (Nigeria)
Location: St Nicholas Church Gardens
“Ifas” (2023) finds its inspiration in the profound curative and narrative powers of clay. These sculptures are truly remarkable, placed deliberately in the final resting place of Liverpool’s first recorded Black resident and former slave, Abell. This collection delves into various themes related to feminine labour, strength, and intimacy.
Bam used her own body in their creation by embracing the clay. The title references the Yoruba word that translates to ‘to pull close.’ The shapes of these sculptures resemble ‘Akpoti,’ which are stools with essential in indigenous Yoruba culture for rest and communal gatherings. Through this new body of work, the artist provides a new gathering place for visitors, encouraging contemplation and reflection.
Artist: Rudy Loewe (UK)
Location: Liverpool One
“The Reckoning” (2023) is an impressive large-scale installation taking its inspiration from Loewe’s painting, “February 1970, Trinidad #1.” This installation portrays Moko junkie and other Carnival mas players who come to the aid of the people during a moment of Black power revolution in Trinidad and Tobago. The artwork is a substantial and awe-inspiring structure, with cutouts that allow sunlight to filter through, casting shadows on the ground. Its vibrancy adds a touch of colour to the landscape of Liverpool One and is significantly placed at the site of the Old Dock, confronting Britain’s colonial legacy.
The design links with the Sailor’s Home Gateway, creating a passage between these two points. This symbolic portal invites individuals to explore and learn about the rich history of our port city, its role in Britain’s colonial past, and the suppressed voices of the Caribbean.
Outdoor installations, such as this, play a pivotal role in making Liverpool Biennial a standout event. They transform the city into a canvas decorated with beautiful and thought-provoking art pieces, which are accessible for everyone to appreciate and be inspired by.
A global journey
“uMoya” was a remarkable celebration of art, culture, and creativity. The program brought themes of ancestral heritage, colonial legacies, climate change, and the resilience of the human spirit into the public realm. It’s been a global journey, uniting cultures from every corner of the world introducing us to stories which will continue to resonate. Each edition of Liverpool Biennial reminds us of the power of art to inspire, provoke thought, and connect communities. I can’t wait to see what the next edition brings!
Words: Becky Birchall