At the Liverpool Biennial, Troubling Local Histories Echo Across Time –

Established in 1998, the Liverpool Biennial returned this month with its 12th edition, “uMoya: The sacred Return of Lost Things,” curated by Cape Town–based artist, curator, and sociologist Khanyisile Mbongwa. Its title, according to Mbongwa, translates from the isiZulu to mean “spirit, breath, air, climate and wind.”

With “uMoya,” Mbongwa is addressing aspects of Liverpool’s history that have long gone unaddressed. Once one of the world’s busiest ports—and formerly the largest slave trading port in Britain—Liverpool now has a troubled past that must be squared with its progressive cultural politics. But the ambitions of this biennial are not merely local. Mbongwa wrote that she intends to “draw a line from the ongoing Catastrophes caused by colonialism towards an insistence on being truly Alive.”

Bringing together new and existing works across multiple venues, Mbongwa has curated the biennial’s offerings across the city, giving the artists’ complex practices space to breathe. Some sites chosen this time around are new to the biennial, including two that point toward the city’s complicity in colonialism: the Tobacco Warehouse and the Cotton Exchange. The former is the world’s largest brick-built warehouse and was used to store vast tobacco bales, while the latter, opened in 1906, was home to Liverpool’s cotton industry. Both spaces are signifiers of the enforced labor undertaken in order to keep the industries which created them profitable.

By taking some works into the public realm, Mbongwa and the biennial’s team are negotiating tough histories head-on, bringing these dialogues in direct line with the city and its inhabitants. This is well evidenced in the positioning of London-based Rudy Loewe’s work, The Reckoning, in Liverpool ONE at the Old Dock. A large-scale installation built around the artist’s painting February 1970, Trinidad #1, The Reckoning depicts a Moko Jumbie, a stilt-walker from Caribbean folklore, among other Carnival Mas revellers coming to assist protestors during a Black Power revolt in Trinidad and Tobago. By siting this work at the old dock, these histories are made to reverberate through Liverpool and into the UK beyond.

Below is a look at some of the standouts from the 2023 Liverpool Biennial, which runs across the city through September 17.

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