Biennial of Interest
Finding the medicine in the wound
with Khanyisile Mbongwa
Since its inception, Liverpool Biennial has commissioned more than 380 new artworks and brought the work of over 530 renowned artists like John Akomfrah, Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami and Ai Weiwei to the city’s shores. Now a 25-year-old institution and the United Kingdom’s largest contemporary visual arts festival, its next edition is set to take place from 10 June – 17 September 2023. Curated by Khanyisile Mbongwa, this year the biennial will respond to the theme uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things. A call to platform ancestral and indigenous forms of knowledge, this year’s biennial looks to address the colonial history sediments still charging the city. In this week’s Of Interest we talk to Mbongwa about the labour that went into conceptualising the festival.
During the 18th century, the city of Liverpool was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade. A port for ships and merchants involved in slave trading, the town’s people used it to source a great deal of their personal wealth. In 1940, during WWII, the city’s fate took a turn for the worse after 80 air raids killed more than 2700 locals. Suffering a decline in manufacturing, Liverpool was never the same. It’s slave trade impacts to the African continent, however, remain to this day.
Governed by care and cure, Khanyisile Mbongwa recently took up the opportunity to put her curatorial sensibilities to practice in this context. Moving between Liverpool and Cape Town for the last twelve months, FNB Art Joburg caught up with Mbongwa to talk about forging a relationship with the city.
So to start off, before we get into Liverpool Biennial. I would like us to talk about you and your practice and to refer back to one of the ways you described your practice before in the past which is Curing and Care. I want to hear more about the sensibilities that govern, when and how did Curing and Care become the essence of your curatorial practice?
Ok wow, I think it’s always been there. I hadn’t really named it but I knew I wanted to figure out what curation means for me. Like, what does it look like for me as someone who is from Elokishini and has sensibilities and ways of seeing, that are very much informed and rooted in ekasi. That’s my base. The way I’m put together and configured is very much informed by and through the township. So I think my curatorial practice is born from the conditions, circumstances and realities that I found myself in elokishini. It’s also in relation to the city centre as someone who had to move between the township and the city and doing that sort of migration every day. That movement and that motion informed and continues to inform the ways in which I think about curating. Care and Cure is part of that right. As I endure the transportation between the township and city centre, the township being a space produced to, sort of designed and made to produce cheap Black labour to feed into the city centre. You are kind of told that you are positined like you don’t have many other options of dreaming and imagination, but you do – beyond the historic systemic instituional limitation, Black World Making is continuous .
Let’s expand on what this looks like in practice. What does caring and curing the self and others look like?
It’s this insistence of being alive and staying alive as Black, Queer, Indigenous, Ancient folk, beyond the histories of trauma, beyond the histories of violence. So my curations form out of that: being curious about the ways in which we make life as Black, Queer, Indigenous, Ancient folk and what have we had to do to make life in circumstances and conditions and geographical locations that are not interested in us being Alive. So it’s learning to be agile like a cat, learning to be nimble, learning that I don’t only have to exist through precariousness and violence in the way Black life is designed to. Then it’s in my being a Sangoma. It’s also in me accepting my calling and realising that my practice as a curator has been aligned with the spiritual, ancestral work that I’m called to do.
Where I come from we have learned to care for each other. We’ve learned to find the medicine in the wound for each other to be ok. Then there is working with Gugulective from the early 2000s and being part of this collective of people from different townships, kwaLanga, eKhayelitsha, eGugulethu and eNyanga. It’s thinking through the shebeen as a space for intellectual and creative imagination. Once again we learn how to care for each other when working with a collective, we learn how to listen because there are multiple voices speaking at the same time, we learn how to share space and ideas, we learn how to let go of ideas, we learn how to surrender to someone else’s idea completely and fully. And so, even in a biennial, there are multiple voices speaking and I listen, listening ancestrally too.
How has that then existed in the relationships you have forged with artists, whose work you curate, so far?
When it comes to curating specifically, curating an exhibition with care, the questions I ask are:
1. How do I care for the artist as a person?
2. How do I care for them as an artist?
3. How do I hold what they bring delicately?
4. How do I care for the narratives?
5. How do I prepare space for them while considering the audience?
6. What are the care ethics of the institutions that have invited me to curate?
7. What are their care ethics and how are they activated as practice and not just as things written in some document or like performance of care through language?
Then in terms of cure, it’s asking one question: What are the technical requirements for the work, for it to be able to do the work it needs to do? In other words, how do I as a curator need to work with the institution that has invited me, be it a gallery, a museum or a non-profit organisation in a way that creates space to hold the work? How do I prepare within their institutional and systematic framework to make sure that there’s a curing that happens so that when the artists’ work arrives, it does what it needs to do rather than having to negotiate the socio-political and the socio economic conditions of the space. I hope that makes sense.
It does. I’m curious though about the relationship that you have been forging first, if at all with the location, with Liverpool. How often have you been going there and how would you describe your relationship so far?
So I had my first visit last year in February and I’ve been going back and forth since. My last visit was in November. It’s been interesting, challenging and enlightening to be in Liverpool because most people don’t know it as the epicentre of British colonialism. So one of the things I ‘ve been doing is spending time with a man by the name of Laurence Westgaph. He has spent over 20 years mapping out the geographical history of Liverpool. That means mapping out the history of the architectural landscape, the street names, the buildings and the monuments. So every time I go to Liverpool I make sure I spend at least one day with Laurence, walking around the city and listening to him share factual information about Liverpool.
Then the second one is to just walk the city on my own. To see the choreography of the city, like what is moving at what time. An interesting thing when you’re a curator from a different place going to a new place is seeing who gets to be out in the evening. It tells you a lot about a city. So I would do a lot of evening walks, just walking, going to eat out by myself and just you know, engaging with the city as a living organism. Again, listening, with my whole body.
Has engaging with the people who exist in the city looked the same?
One of the first things I did was go to all these different organisations and partner venues and I just listened to them talk about their spaces, what kind of work they do and what they’ve come up with. It’s just listening because listening is an important aspect of my work in order for me to formulate any sort of care practice or care sensitivities. I try to find why the place has called me, what it wants to tell me and what it wants me to do about it.
Also, Liverpool is a very very very windy city. There is a very strong current of the wind that I would listen to. I would let it sit on my body and listen to how it would hit me, feel what angles it was coming from, note the speed and then I would think about all the people who looked like me, who were brought there as enslaved people.
So now let’s go back to what you just said about it being a windy city and you deliberately spending time feeling the wind. Is that one of the things that informed the theme of uMoya?
I mean I employ my whole body as a listening tool. I went to the International Slavery Museum and the curator there, Jean-François Manicom said something interesting: no one ever speaks about the wind in Liverpool and its role in the colonial expedition. I just closed my eyes, listening to the wind and I was feeling the wind to my bones. Even though I was dressed really warmly, like thermal vests, long johns, socks, scarfs, I still had long hair then, I had my locks, locks around my neck, but that wind penetrated those layers. It still hit me to the bone. I had this vision, of the wind opening up the water and all the souls of the people that have been drowned, that have died in the water, going home. I imagined them being released. This is where the theme comes from, it was delivered to me. There it is, uMoya the return of sacred lost things and beings.
To step back again, Khanyisile, this isn’t your first time playing a curatorial role at a biennial and one of the questions I ask curators who are participating is about the role that they see biennials playing for them. So I want to hear from you: what is the role that it’s playing right now leading up to the Liverpool biennial?
There’s an interesting thing about art: the capacity of art and what art can bear. I think I curate because I do not know. That’s why I curate. I curate because I cannot bear not being able to imagine a world and so curating is part of me imagining a world. Right now my imagination is sitting with the wound and what is needed to heal the wound.
The way in which I work as a curator is a different temperament and pacing to how biennials work and move. Biennials are quick, they’re fast, you’re hired one year and the next year you have to do the thing. Curating can be such an extractive practice because it is in conversation with colonialism. I had to put together a curatorial practice that is not extractive. So then I decided that the best thing to do after I’d sent out emails letting people know that I’m looking for artists who are making work as a way to imagine themselves into existence, artists with emancipated practices. Once I had those names I would not do any social media search or read anything about the artist prior to doing a studio visit in person or online – in this way I would be introduced to their practice through their voices and how they wanted to position themselves. . Through the biennial, I get to make new connections, forge new pathways and be exposed to practices I was completely unaware of.
I assume that that would require relinquishing a lot of control.
I really wanted to create a space where I meet the artist on the artist’s terms. I didn’t have any questions for them. Most of the time as curators we come there with so many questions because we have researched you and then it creates a power dynamic. A lot of artists appreciate this because they have never been approached in this way. Curators usually have questions about specific works they’re interested in. In my practice we are holding each other with trust, we are taking care of each other.
Okay so uMoya’s return is then rooted in presenting emancipated practices or practices rooted in emancipation?
So it’s a network of Queer people, Back people, Indigenous people, Ancient people, Brown people, Poor people. It’s like opening a portal for a different kind of connection that can move beyond the capitalist White supremist narrative. One that can move beyond the heteronormative narrative under which we are all socialised. The biennial can be that.
Khanyisile, those are the questions that I had for you. Thank you so much for your time. Any closing thoughts?
We’re not working with a colonial timeline here. I’m working with a timeline that acknowledges and affirms all those who have been oppressed racially through the colonial and enslaving project. So it is important for me to say I’m moving from the decolonial context of how we have been speaking to ourselves to a more emancipated context. The decolonial context still sits within catastrophe, there’s an interesting thing that one of the artists said about her practice: “I do not need to hold the violence”. I say I do not need to hold the trauma anymore. I don’t need to hold the weight of the lie. The weight of the lie is that we are only made through colonial and enslavement history. That’s the weight of the lie that the biennial is rejecting and instead gestures towards Aliveness.