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The Winds of Past and Present

The Liverpool Biennial: A Series of Interviews

By Amanda-Jane Reynolds


Charmaine Watkiss, 'Witness', 2023. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Victoria Gallery & Museum. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty.

Liverpool welcomes back its 12th edition of the Liverpool Biennial, ‘uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things’. Khanyisile Mbongwa, the Curator, and Dr Samantha Lackey, the Director, have selected 35 national and international artists to take over the city across locations like Liverpool ONE, Tate Liverpool and Tobacco Warehouse. The Liverpool Biennial is the UK’s largest free festival of contemporary and visual art, with a 14-week programme packed with exhibitions and performances which are running from 10th June until 16th September.

What can visitors expect from the dynamic programme?

This edition of Liverpool Biennial – uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things – offers possibilities for joy and suggests different ways of existing in the world. By examining colonial histories, and Liverpool’s role in those histories, it traces the cartographic lines drawn from catastrophes towards alternative futures. Visitors to Liverpool will experience outdoor sculpture, performance, textiles, sound works and film that evoke ancestral practices and wisdom, and look towards the possibilities of tomorrow.

Dr Samantha Lackey, Director of the Liverpool Biennial

Guadalupe Maravilla, ‘Disease Thrower #8’ and ‘Disease Thrower #9’. Installation view at Tate Liverpool. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty.

uMoya is an isiZulu word which means spirit, wind and climate, the wind being the pilot for this year’s Biennial. Wind also acts as a historical indicator regarding 19th century Liverpool and its trading port that catalysed the city’s riches. Specialising in sugar and tobacco, this port exploited enslaved labourers from several continents such as Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, as well as the Americas.

The wind would carry the ships to their destination ports, continuing the hegemonic labour, whereas 21st century Liverpool’s winds have guided its sails towards a progressive post-colonial foundation. ‘uMoya: The Sacred Return’ is a conduit that brings together people and objects from across the seas, evoking the catastrophic past, and present, effects of colonialism.

Shannon Alonzo, ‘Lowest Hanging Fruit’ and ‘Washerwoman’, 2018. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tate Liverpool. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty.

How do the Biennial themes link to Liverpool as a city?

I think it is asking the city to consider the role of the wind (it’s speed, force, current, temperament) in building the British empire and at the same time asking the city to attend to how it was imagined and created, to trace itself - its linage of how it became Liverpool. And this also means to sit in the historical facts and truth of its role in the colonial and enslavement projects- and the kind of violent conditions and circumstances it produced in the geographical locations those merchant ships docked. And that this is part of the inheritance and legacy that it ought to consider in how it imagines itself now and it's future.
And what work it needs to do to position itself to do the work of sacred returns, and I suppose this means to not see Liverpool as this institution that is the city, but maybe humanise it, personalise it and see it in direct consultation with the people and stories.

Khanyisile Mbongwa, Curator of Liverpool Biennial 2023

Albert Ibokwe Khoza, The Black Circus of the Republic of Bantu, 2023. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Tobacco Warehouse. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty.

One of the many artists that caught my eye is Charmaine Watkiss. She explores the themes of tradition, ancestry, and ritual, with an interest in cosmology and mythology. She expresses these messages by primarily using mediums such as pencil, watercolour, and paper. She models for her artworks but has expressed that these are not self-portraits; her work depicts women as vessels to represent “memory stories” that Watkiss has uncovered through her archival research.

Watkiss’ series ‘Witness’ is included in the programme, featuring a sculpture and collection of pencil drawings exhibited in the Victoria Gallery and Museum. Most works were commissioned for the Biennial, with the exception of ‘The Return’ which was created in 2018.

Watkiss shares her methods for ‘Witness’ and how she approaches the stories she researches in the following interview.

A-J: Congratulations on being selected as one of the exhibiting artists in the 2023 Liverpool Biennial! Could you tell us about your work 'Witness' which is on display?

Charmaine Watkiss, 'Witness', 2023. Liverpool Biennial 2023 at Victoria Gallery & Museum. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty.

Charmaine: ‘Witness’ is an installation of 3 life-sized drawings along with a small sculpture which is on display in the Victoria Gallery and Museum. The work tells stories of the transatlantic which is connected to Liverpool’s history. On the back wall is a drawing of two women holding a boat, and with this work, I had been researching how indigo was produced on plantations in the Americas. Much of this blue dye would have been imported to feed the cotton mills in the UK. Through my research, I discovered that this colour was also connected to the sacred, especially in funerary rites. The work speaks of ancestral lineage, transatlantic crossings, ritual and communion.

On the left side of ‘The Return’ there is also the work ‘Oracle of our Forebears’. This earth goddess speaks about the enslaved Africans' knowledge of plants and healing. This knowledge also helped them in acts of liberation because they knew which plants could heal as well as harm.

On the opposite wall in ‘Ode to the Land of Wood and Water’ we see a river goddess walking out of the water. She is bringing with her the history of Liverpool; on her dress is a map of the old wet docks where the ships from the plantations used to dock. Around her neck are artefacts which can be found on the foreshore of Liverpool and the Thames in the form of clay pipes, evidence of the tobacco trade.

In the middle of the room is a clay shrine figure which is surrounded by tobacco pipes, along with herbal tinctures. All the works speak of a quiet liberation but also dignity and strength. With this installation, I wanted to create a sacred space of healing and contemplation.

Charmaine Watkiss drawing 'The Return', 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

A-J: What role does research and archives play within your practice?

Charmaine: My process usually starts with a question and the journey to answering that question begins in the archive. So, my research forms the backdrop and as I delve deeper, I begin to respond to my research by constructing multi-layered narratives. The work itself is very rarely about just one thing, because as I am making the work, I usually find lots of different connections to the subject at hand.

A-J: Your practice contrasts greyscale pencil portraits with bursts of watercolour within garments, focal points and backgrounds. How do you feel these materials and techniques help communicate and optimise your concepts?

Charmaine: I am passionate about drawing, so when making works which include colour, the figure itself is always grey-scaled because I want to retain the integrity of the work being a drawing. I often combine different materials with the work in order to add layers of meaning, for example in ‘The Return’, one of the materials I used inside the boat was Carbon, I used this because carbon constitutes 18% of the human body.

Charmaine Watkiss, The Return, 2078. Courtesy of the artist.

A-J: Many of your portraits depict the figure gazing beyond the canvas and off to the side. What is the narrative for this composition?

Charmaine: My figures all exist in a world of their own, they are not concerned with the viewer. I purposely make works which do not engage with the male gaze; this actually invites the viewer to come closer and draws them into a narrative.

People always wonder what my characters are thinking. The viewer also feels comfortable spending time really looking at the work, and the more they look the more things they see because I embed a lot of symbols in the work. So, there is no specific narrative to the gaze itself, but the meaning of the gaze will alter according to the composition and relationship to other characters which may appear in the work.

A-J: You draw yourself but do not see the works as self-portraits. How do your experiences relate to the characters within your artworks?

Charmaine: My experience relates to the work only in the wider collective context. My questions arise out of the things I am seeking an answer to; and in trying to answer that question I am having to retrieve information from the archive. I do this because there are so many unanswered questions about the culture I grew up in with in relation to the Black experience. So, my characters, even though they look like me, are only there to serve a story that I want to tell, which is the story of a collective experience.

Charmaine Watkiss, 'The Return' 2018, detail close--up. Courtesy of the artist.

A-J: 'The Return' is also exhibited within the Liverpool Biennial, a work which features two portraits, one of which has a sense of motion and overlapping. In previous works, you have used the overlapping of figures to represent an intergenerational concept. Is the conjoining of heads symbolising the same theme, or is it a representation of the cyclical history?

Charmaine: Yes, I have used overlapping figures in my work to suggest intergenerational relationships. With ‘The Return’, the doubled head on one of the figures holding the boat suggests movement, but also a sense that this figure is between two worlds, especially because there are symbols on her dress. So, she is quite mystical.

The Liverpool Biennial isn’t just an art festival sharing the works of talented artists, it also honestly reveals the city’s past whilst celebrating those whose heritage is tied to Liverpool. Just as Director Samantha Lackey said, the 2023 Biennial is carefully curated to map out past colonial catastrophes as well as alternative futures the city is striving towards. Watkiss is just 1 out of over 30 impressive artists and collectives who showcase this cyclical history, truly representing the Biennial’s ancestral inquiry.

Liverpool Biennial 2023, uMoya_ The Sacred Return of Lost Things. Installation view at Victoria Gallery & Museum. Courtesy of Liverpool Biennial. Photography by Mark McNulty



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