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Questioning the Nature of History: Khanyisile Mbongwa in conversation with Elana Brundyn

As Curator of next year’s Liverpool Biennial, Khanyisile Mbongwa faces the monumental task of creating a space that not only celebrates Black and othered artists but engages both art and audience beyond the burden of history and language

By House & Garden South Africa | June 16, 2022 | Art

Greatness recognises greatness could not be more apt of the appointment of Khanyisile Mbongwa as curator of the 12th Liverpool Biennial, which takes place from June to september next year. as the UK’s largest festival dedicated to contemporary visual arts, landing the top job is no mean feat – and an opportunity to make lasting change that has not escaped Khanyisile – especially for the othered and marginalised within the global art community.

“I am excited to work with the team on the 12th edition and am curious about what the city will show me about my curatorial processes during my time here,” she recently said. “I am looking forward to co-creating with individuals, collectives and organisations both within Liverpool and beyond and am interested to see how the city has established itself historically, sustains itself at this moment, and imagines its future.”

Elana Brundyn – cultural entrepreneur, H&G Contributing Editor, and friend of Khanyisile – sat down with the curator.

Congratulations on your exciting appointment as chief curator of the 2023 Liverpool Biennial, following your very successful curatorship of the

Stellenbosch Triennial in 2020. In a recent Art Forum interview, you mentioned you are ‘interested to see how the city has established itself historically, how it sustains itself at this moment and how it imagines its future’. How will your curatorial process engage with the city of Liverpool, not least with its tainted history, evident in the stone carvings of slave ships on the facade of the Port of Liverpool Building, and the sculptures of an African man and woman on the Cunard Building? Can your curatorial conversations show ways to engage but also navigate beyond the burden of history toward a transformative, inclusive vision of the city’s future?

History is always present, intertwined with this moment and the future. From an African perspective, we see time and space as intersectional, thus speaking through, to and with each other. Buildings are in some ways public monuments and as such continue to mark the space with everything they carry. We cannot ignore the khanyisile mbongwa historical markings of architecture as a deep imagination of those who precede us. We can, however, enter a space grounded in what it is and then speculate our own possibilities and emancipation from it. And for me, it is asking: Why have you summoned me here?

Refreshingly, you describe your curatorial practice as collective and conversational rather than competitive and ego-driven. That came across in a remark you made in the interview about looking forward to co-creating with individuals, collectives and organisations in Liverpool and beyond. Liverpool is home to the oldest Black community in the UK. Could you comment on the relationship, if any, between your curatorial philosophy and the African notion of ubuntu [I am because we are]?

I entered the creative world through collective practices. Gugulective [a network of creatives active in Cape Town’s eastern townships, of which Khanyisile is a founding member] plays an integral role in my understanding of the relationship between collective consciousness and being in constant dialogue with others – and that when you enter the collective circle, the individual I no longer exists. This informs my curatorial practice, as in ubuntu – that not only recognises I am because you are – but also the sacred life cycle of the ecosystem, such as how the african drum represents Ubuntu: we go into the forest to ask permission from the tree; we ask the cow to sacrifice itself for our food, as an offering to our ancestors, and we use the skin for the drum; the cow’s manure feeds the soil that gives us food that regenerates life force; the drum gives us sound to which we dance to heal ourselves and the ancestral. as you can see, there are many aspects to the making of the drum and how it works. This is how I approach my curatorial practice.

Can your curatorial conversations show ways to engage but also navigate beyond the burden of history toward a transformative, inclusive vision of the city’s future?

I think history is a lesson we do not know how to learn, and hence, it continues to remain a burden. Because history, as we know, is one-sided. A history that mostly has white men speaking over the lives of many through the white male gaze that becomes normalised as the way to look and see. at this point, I am merely asking myself questions about the very nature of history as a practice that denies us a future beyond its grasp – or questions about whose task it is to imagine what transformative, inclusive cities look like – or have we learned how to tend to the wound? however, I think I curate because I do not want to lose my ability to dream of a world, and there lies the vision of inclusivity. I know denial as a lived experience of being Black, Woman, Queer, african, Plural.

You have said, ‘Colonialism and apartheid robbed us of our legacies... And when somebody does that, it is them saying to you, you are not allowed to be alive. And so, what does it mean when a Black person says: ‘I want to live?’ How does your curatorial practice open up a space in which Black artists can express themselves fully: live, dream and reclaim a space of authenticity?

My intention of centralising care and cure is co-creating spaces where Black and queer artists do not need to transcend themselves for their work to exist in the exhibition. Working the space on a structural level so that the artist’s work does not have to enter fighting but do what it intended. It is important to be aware that when you are born Black, you are born into a world that has already drawn a line of where you begin and end, and when you are denied your culture, that is a distortion of language by not having permission to hear nor speak.

You see, it is imperative to consistently figure out what care looks like for the process to be emancipatory and what ‘cure’ looks like, so your process can hold the space. I do not always get it right, but I am always working on it.

Read more of the interview in the June 2022 issue, available in stores now, or subscribe for your digital copy here.