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Strong winds of change for art festival - and its visitors
This week: The return of Liverpool Biennial, 51 artists' studios open to visit this weekend, a contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet and a podcast starring North West museums
There’s a delicate line of balance to a successful biennial that isn’t easy to tread. To deserve their place in the international art world they need to be truly global, showcasing great work from artists of many nationalities. But they also need to feel local - as if that event at that particular time simply couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.
Liverpool Biennial founding director Lewis Biggs was particularly successful at getting that right. In his more than a decade of leading the festival, international artists infused their individual practises and ideas with a deep sense of the city they were visiting, creating pieces that couldn’t have existed without blending the two. They caged the stone lions outside St George’s Hall (Rigo 23 - 2006), squeezed a tiny Korean house in between two buildings on Duke Street (Do Ho Suh - 2010), transformed the Queen Victoria monument into a one-bedroom hotel (Tatsurou Bashi - 2002) and created a full-size replica of Liverpool FC’s dressing room inside a gallery (Daniel Bozkov - 2010).
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Back in those days though, there was more arts funding available for expensive large-scale public realm works, which became landmarks in the city during the festival’s run. Yet, even taking this into consideration, more recent editions of the Liverpool Biennial seemed to have lost that crucial connection with the city, and while they continued the tradition of opening up usually hidden spaces much of the work felt parachuted in.
Good news then that this year’s edition of the UK’s largest festival of contemporary art, under new director Samantha Lackey and curator Khanyisile Mbongwa, has gone a long way to correct the course - and in some ways takes it a step further. Not only does it encourage us to explore Liverpool in new ways - inviting us inside the gigantic, mostly empty, Tobacco warehouse and the former Cotton Exchange alongside traditional gallery venues - but it also asks us to explore ourselves, our preconceptions, our complicity.
This year’s theme is uMoya, an isiZulu word that means ‘spirit, soul, breath, air, wind, temper and climate’. It’s a reference to the strong winds in Liverpool that placed the city at the centre of the abhorrent trade of enslaved people as well as an opportunity to blow new routes - new ways of thinking - on the map. Together the featured works aim to return ‘that which has been lost and taken from those who have been silenced and forgotten’.
The audience is invited to have their hands tied with rope before entering
It’s a powerful theme, directly relating to Liverpool’s history, and not an easy one to confront. The city has attempted to own its significant part in the Slave Trade before, with an official apology and important work done by the International Slavery Museum. But this feels different. As a white person living today, it has always been possible to wriggle out from under the guilt of the past by having been born too late to change it. But many of these works show the pain and terrible legacy that continue today - and demonstrate our responsibility to reckon with it.
At Tate Liverpool, Francis Offman directly connects notions of white supremacy with the Rwandan Civil War in Untitled 2022. Small piles of books are held up by callipers - instruments used by early-20th century Belgian colonisers to measure the facial features of Rwandan people with the purpose of classifying them into racial groups. The exhibition notes: ‘Ultimately, this racist process of segregation contributed to the murder of approximately 500,000 to 660,000 people during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.’
In the same venue, Brazilian artists Isa do Rosária’s lavishly embroidered textile works offer safe passage to the souls that linger in the Atlantic Ocean, thrown overboard after perishing on their long journey or deliberately drowned. The concept of returning lost souls to their homelands also features in Johannesburg-based artist and healer Albert iBokwe Khosa’s performance Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu at the Tobacco Warehouse, where the audience is invited to have their hands tied with rope before entering. The artist’s joyous performance shifts into horror as it forces us to consider the theft of African dance and music by colonisers, who saw this tradition of connecting with each other and ancestral spirits as nothing but cheap entertainment they forced Black people to perform for white audiences.
To get to their seats for the performance, the audience walks - hands bound - past a plan of an 18th century slave ship plotted in soil and sprouting seeds (Chorus of Soil by Senegalese-Italian artist Binta Diaw).
Meanwhile at Open Eye Gallery, Sandra Suubi’s Samba Gown, composed of found plastic and a new veil created with women from North Liverpool, makes an eye-catching statement about Western countries shipping their waste to Uganda where it pollutes the land and rivers. And at FACT, Vienna-based Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński’s multimedia experience imagines what its like to breathe for others.
As with every Biennial, there are too many works worth mentioning for the space afforded by a single article. I spent the whole of Thursday exploring and it wasn’t nearly long enough to fully appreciate every exhibition never mind the public works. On my list still to visit is Brazilian-born Antonio Obá’s Jardim at Victoria Gallery & Museum, a ‘garden’ of hundreds of brass bells that ring as you brush past them, which I’ve been told is very beautiful. I can never resist an art work that you’re invited to touch.
Her smile gets bigger and bigger as the phrases grow more appreciative
My final destination was the Bluecoat, where French artist Benoît Piéron has reimagined a medical environment as a safe space with a colourful tent-bed made from discarded hospital sheets. On the ground floor, Nicholas Galanin rejects the marginalisation and destruction of indigenous people’s cultures with the 2-minute video k'idéin yéi jeené (You’re doing such a good job).
In it, a sweet little child with plaits and a wide smile listens silently as positive phrases in her native language of Lingít, spoken in the Pacific North West of North America, are said aloud. ‘Thank you for helping me,’ reads the subtitles. ‘You are so good, baby’. Her smile gets bigger and bigger as the phrases grow more appreciative - as did mine in reaction to hers. A delightful shared experience that shows, in the simplest way, how much we all benefit from attempts to understand and learn from other cultures.
Liverpool Biennial opens tomorrow and runs until September 17. A full list of artists and venues is here. Running alongside it is Independents Biennial, featuring the work of local artists. Find out more here.
This week we’re also buzzing about…
Meet Me at the Museum: The latest episode of the Art Fund’s podcast is a special on Highlights from the North West and includes comedian Russel Kane at the Whitworth Gallery, Jane Garvey and Fi Glover at Tate Liverpool, comedian Tez Ilyas at the National Football Museum and DJ Mark Radcliffe at the Science and Industry Museum. Listen here. If you’re not yet familiar with Meet Me at the Museum, it’s worth scrolling back to earlier episodes set in the North, including writer Amy Liptrot at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire.
Manchester’s Royal Exchange’s new season: The theatre has announced its Autumn/Winter season, which includes Emma Rice’s adaptation of Brief Encounter and a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet described as ‘a love letter to Manchester’. Tickets go on general sale on Tuesday, July 13, here.
Wirral Open Studio Tour: I love poking about inside artists’ studios and getting a deeper idea of what it’s like to live their lives. Often the opportunity doesn’t come up until it’s too late to ask them any questions so open studios tours, where you can meet their owners, are a treat. There are an impressive 81 artists in 51 studios taking part in this event, which is just over the River Mersey from the Liverpool Biennial if you happen to be in the city this weekend. More details here.
The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed this edition of Stored Honey was sent a day later than usual. This was to enable me to get to the first day of the Liverpool Biennial previews yesterday. We’ll be back to the usual Thursday sends from next week. If you haven’t yet subscribed and want to make sure you don’t miss any editions, you can click the button below.
I have enjoyed reading all your messages and feedback, which so far include requests for pieces on family-friendly events, which seems like an apt subject to cover in the run up to the summer holidays, and the regional poetry scene. One of you got in touch to say: ‘Thanks for the Lucy Worsley tipoff! Me and my mum are going to go!’
I read all your messages and will reply to as many as I can. If you’d like to get in touch, you can drop me a line at email@example.com, find Stored Honey on Twitter or use the comment option below.
Have a great week - I’m off to ring some bells,