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An Interview With...

Khanyisile Mbongwa


uMoya: The Sacred Return
of Lost Things,

Liverpool Biennial 2023

Various locations

10th June - 17th September 2023

Khanyisile Mbongwa_Tatyana Levana Photography_Cape Town_South Africa (1).jpg

Photo Credit: Tatyana Levana Photography

How did you land on “uMoya: The sacred Return of Lost Things” as the theme of this year’s Liverpool Biennial?


When I arrived in Liverpool for the first time late Feb/early March 2022, I was struck by the intensity of the wind and how it landed on my bones. Coming from Cape Town a windy city itself – I paid little attention until I had a conversation with Jean-Francois Manicom curator of the International Slavery Museum who was also a former sailor about the interconnection between the wind – colonialism and slavery in Liverpool. Jean-Francois explained to me that the force and direction of the wind can give you an advantage when you set sail and such is the case in Liverpool. The Liverpool west-south winds played a prominent role in building the British Empire. It is then I attuned my forensic and ancestral listening practice to the direction, force, temperament, speed, and texture of the wind – the weather. Then one day standing at the Royal Albert Docks looking out into the water and being caressed by the west-southerly winds that I felt the coldness to my bone I asked the wind, why and how come it aided in the colonial and enslavement genocide? And why it has called me here… Up until that moment, I didn’t know what I was going to curate and then I had this vision of the wind opening up the water and the spirit and souls of all those unnamed/nameless/renamed returning home – ukulanda imiphefumlo ibuyele ekhanya … and that’s how the theme came into being.

Can you talk about the importance of healing and care at this moment in time?


There isn’t a time where healing and care was not important. The world has been riddled with so many violences that has been eating away at earth itself as a planet. As the human species we have not been caring to our environment, and indigenous teachings and perspectives world over – speak about seeing ourselves as part of the ecosystem and not above it as its masters. So, a shift in perspective and practice is necessary if we are to truly attend to our home. Wars, colonialism, enslavement have all devastated earth’s cosmos and I think COVID pandemic and subsequent shutdown showed us all how the global socio-economic, socio-political, and socio-racial and socio-gender structures function in reproducing scenes of violences that none of us can continue to claim ignorance to what has happened here historically and the kind of legacies we inherit. It is necessary for our own survival to be in the practice of care, because when we do – we pay attention, we learn to listen and pause, we ask questions of ourselves and our own positionality, and we learn to ask – how can I hold this space with you? Because there is no healing without care.

How did you approach putting together these artist list? In your conversations with the participating artists, did they share what they were creating or were there any surprises?


I had several approached all centered on the research framework that outlined my area of enquiry and curiosity. I spoke to old and new colleagues in different locales presenting to them my research framework and asked them to suggest artists in their region. I followed up with studio visits (online or in person) of all the artists they suggested.


Some artists I had been following their practices for years, waiting to have a project that could hold their practice, and through colleagues asked to be introduced. And then, some of the artists are from the Tate collection, with these artists as well, I did studio visits. Only two artists on the list I had worked with before, but even with them I did a studio visit.


Artists shared what they were going to create but as a curator you know that things shift and change when the artist gets in the studio and I have to be nimble enough to find flow in their current – so yes, there were beautiful surprises. It is my job as the custodian of their works in the Biennial to continuously find ways to hold their work sacredly and with care. 


What are your guiding principles when working as a curator?


My practice is built on two pillars Care and Cure – which stand on the foundation of ancestral and spiritual practices. This is informed and carried out through what I call forensic and ancestral listening, which is to embody the practice utilising my whole body to listen to the choreography of the city, the sounds and smells it produces, the colours and hues of the people and places, the built environment – what nature gives, when the city wakes up and sleeps… Forensic listening means to map out the history of the place through architecture, street names, public monuments, museum collections, civil movements, arts, culture, music… ancestral listening is the somatic response my body provides to where I am, where it chooses to be still, anxious, erratic, paused, irritated, afraid, happy, curious, sad, precarious and at ease.


Your own art practice is very much rooted in socially engaged and public art. How important was it for you to incorporate public spaces in Liverpool, as well as more traditional art venues?


Public space is important because it is the unframed billboard of the city, when we place a work in public space it permeates energy that influences the aura of the space and therefore the people who encounter it. This is why any marketing company want billboards at street corners, empty walls, streetlights or highways because of the power of the image and its psychological effect when you continuously see it – even unknown to yourself. The history of Graffiti and street art is embedded in the power of this knowledge, hence governments restrictions. Alongside this, is my excitement of someone’s chance encounter with the work and then forming a memory that they choose that route now and again to see the work or to remember it long after it has been removed. So having work in public space is super important to me – because also this is where I truly have no control and have to trust even more the work to do the work.

There is an expectation for biennials and exhibitions of contemporary art to speak to the times and address wider social and political conditions. Does this create pressure for curators and artists?


As an African person my perspective of time is not linear, in the way we are socialised through Western/European teachings. Time for us Africans is intersectional, the past, present, and future are always in dialogue and so I move from that configuration of time and space.


What was the most memorable part of curating the festival?


For this festival specifically is working with the best production team I have ever worked with. From the assistant curators who worked carefully with my curatorial direction, to the Programme manager who made sure I have a deep awareness of how this city works and our partner organisations, production manager who aligned the technical team with my practice of care and cure for our found venues : Tobacco Warehouse, Cotton Exchange, public realm and all the technicians at our partner venues Tate, FACT Liverpool, Open Eye, Victoria Gallery & Museum, Bluecoat, World Museum. Because this is the part of the team that can remain so invisible in the process as people who work on the ground with me installing the work. The production team is the heart of the making the Biennial, and if the heart is not beating the Biennial flatlines. But the heart cannot exist without the full body… the Development team being the spine; making sure we have funding to carry through each project; the Marketing team are the feet leaving our footprint everywhere, they make us globally visible; Mediator teams that are the smile, attending to all our visitors; Operations and Finance are eyes keeping track of the inner workings of the Biennial; the Director is the ears, listening to the pulse; the artist are the blood coursing through the body … 


What kind of experience would you like for visitors to have at the Biennial?


Hmmm…To be open and present for the work, allowing the works to carry them between venues and see the line I draw that sits between Catastrophe and Aliveness.

uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things, The Liverpool Biennial 2023 takes place at various locations across Liverpool. 10th June - 17th September 2023. Free entry.

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