Khanyisile Mbongwa Reckons With Liverpool's Past and Future

Vanessa Peterson speaks with the curator of next year's Liverpool Biennial about the city's significance in global history and her curatorial ethos

BY Khanyisile Mbongwa AND Vanessa Peterson in Interviews , Profiles | 15 DEC 22

Vanessa Peterson: You were recently announced as curator of the 12th edition of the Liverpool Biennial, the UK’s largest contemporary visual arts festival. What are your hopes for next year’s event?

Khanyisile Mbongwa: There is a rich and nuanced history of how Liverpool was imagined and created as a city. During the 19th century, as the largest and most advanced port in the world, it became one of the world’s richest cities, built on the violent and exploitative triangular trade of sugar and tobacco through enslaved labour between Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and Asia. Liverpool played a vital role in imagining slavery as a trade-merchant system. I am interested in how the city reconciles this part of its history and how it is reinventing itself within what the world now terms a post-colonial or decolonial framework. I wondered what Liverpool could offer someone like me – a Black, African, queer woman – but, most importantly, whether emancipatory practices are possible there.

Khanyisile Mbongwa_Tatyana Levana Photography_Cape Town_South Africa
Portrait of Khanyisile Mbongwa. Courtesy: Liverpool Biennial; photograph: Tatyana Levana

VP: The title of next year’s biennial, ‘u:Moya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things’, puts an emphasis on ancestral and indigenous knowledge. How might the artists you’ve selected engage with this theme?

KM: uMoya is an isiZulu word meaning ‘wind’ or ‘compass’, so the title situates the wind as the guiding force and portal for the biennial. Inciting the sacred return of lost things or beings, uMoya also acts as a community that reminds you you’re not the only one who is dealing with perpetual loss.

Historically, the wind in Liverpool ushered ships on their voyages overseas. Today, I am drawing on that very same wind to trace the story of the city through the artists I have invited to participate in the biennial. The work of French artist Julien Creuzet, for instance, is concerned with the complexities of history and rereading archival images to discern what happened before the transatlantic slave trade. In our conversations, Creuzet kept telling me: ‘I have a responsibility for the kind of images I show.’ British artist Charmaine Watkiss uses plants as a means of tracing cartography and catastrophe onto her portraits of Black women, unearthing the generational female wisdom that survived the transatlantic crossing to be passed down from the plantations to the present day. US artist Torkwase Dyson is interested in abstraction, ideas of distance and engaging with water both as a location and as a state in flux. In our first conversation, she told me: ‘Black interiority is the thing that will save us.’

‘uMoya’ will seek to acknowledge past histories of the city of Liverpool but will do so with the intention of – where possible – suggesting different futures that embrace the emancipatory priorities of care and joy. This biennial is about what the future might look like when investigated using Indigenous and ancient techniques and methods.

Charmaine Watkiss the matriarch
Charmaine Watkiss, The Matriarch, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and Liverpool Biennial

VP: Care is a central philosophy in your curatorial practice. Could you tell me more about how you see care in relation to art?

KM: Care requires listening without preconceived notions, listening to hear not to respond, listening because you do not know and listening to find direction. It also requires admitting that curatorial practices are inherently extractive and figuring out how to practice in non-extractive ways. For me, it is to care for the artists as makers, to understand their work, their narrative and those they walk with. In practice, this means ensuring that institutions have clear care policies in place that create the space and conditions conducive to the artist’s work. Care considerations have to be embedded within curatorial practice: as global conditions shift and change, so must our approaches.

VP: In 2020, you curated the first edition of the Stellenbosch Triennale, which sought, according to the event’s website, to turn the town into a ‘curated public laboratory’ and cited South Africa’s ‘cultural renaissance’. What did you take away from that experience and how do you see the contemporary art landscape in South Africa now, three years on?

KM: The work I did with the Stellenbosch Triennale team is what tested and sharpened my curatorial practice on care and cure. It entailed a different kind of listening to timelines (past, present and future) and learning which timelines didn’t belong to me and to my existence but were used to define and catalogue who I was and could be. This informed not only how I look at my own work but also that of my contemporaries. The South African contemporary artistic landscape is shifting. We are seeing the emergence of a new generation of young Black painters giving voice to Blackness beyond pain and suffering. There are more collaborations between artists and curators, a number of new museums opening, and numerous artists launching foundations, project spaces and collective studios.

Kent Chan, Future Tropics, 2022
Kent Chan, Future Tropics, 2022, Courtesy: the artist and Liverpool Biennial

VP: In 2006, you co-founded Gugulective. How did working alongside other artists and writers in a collective inform your curatorial practice?

KM: In retrospect, being in Gugulective taught me everything: how to speak with my own voice and not shrink in the presence of others; how to trust my intuition even when I had not yet developed the language to articulate it; how to share ideas and see them expand into something I could not possibly have imagined; how to work on someone else’s vision because I can see a thread that makes sense.

I also learned to believe in collective vision, identity and expansion;to consider the relationship between space, place and institutional monopoly; to comprehend the importance of my geographical location (the township) as a site of history, intellectual engagement and world-making; to appreciate the journey between the idea, the concept and the work. Perhaps, above all, it taught me – from my long conversations with the late artist Unathi Sigenu – that the author is dead! In so many ways, Gugulective is where I began to harness my curatorial skills and language.

The 12th edition of Liverpool Biennial, uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things, opens to the public on 10 June 2023

Main image: Ranti Bam, Ifa, 2021. Courtesy: the artist and Liverpool Biennial; photograph: Catalin Georgescu

Khanyisile Mbongwa is a Cape Town-based independent curator, award-winning artist and sociologist. Formerly chief curator of the 2020 Stellenbosch Triennale, she is curator of the 12th edition of the Liverpool Biennial, opening in 2023.

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK.