Julianknxx: Chorus in Rememory of Flight at the Barbican review – transcendent and poignant

Julianknxx Chorus in Rememory of Flight (Eva Herzog & Barbican Art Gallery)
Julianknxx Chorus in Rememory of Flight (Eva Herzog & Barbican Art Gallery)

Julianknxx’s multi-video installation for the Curve has at its heart a journey of 4,000 miles. In one year, the poet, artist and film-maker travelled to cities with colonial histories across Western Europe, from Lisbon via Barcelona to Rotterdam and Berlin, and collaborated with Black communities.

The base for everything is the Sierra Leone-born artist’s poetry, which appears as text punctuating the videos of dancers’ movements, politicians’ and activists’ thoughts, and – most importantly – choirs’ songs.

The idea of a journey is significant in underscoring Julianknxx’s theme of the histories and legacies of slavery and the identities of diasporic cultures. And the Curve’s distinctive space lends itself to narrative approaches and stories that unfold episodically, as this does. He uses this element beautifully, choreographing the surround-sound design so that different textures of voice – from chants to plaintive lone voices and the glorious harmonies of the choirs – call us through the show.

There are three video pieces, with two shorter works informing the show’s longer-form three-screen installation. In one short film, Julianknxx captures a remarkable performance by the choreographer Exocé Kasongo in a Berlin subway, his movements taut and violent, rhythmic and fluid by turns, amplified by Julianknxx’s editing to the point of glitch and fracture.

Julianknxx Chorus in Rememory of Flight, (Eva Herzog & Barbican Art Gallery)
Julianknxx Chorus in Rememory of Flight, (Eva Herzog & Barbican Art Gallery)

Every part of Kasongo’s body – including the expressive movements of his mouth, eyes and hands – hints at both defiance and woundedness. The slow fading in and out of Julianknxx’s words embellishes and complicates the choreography. “We are in constant baptism./Your spirit, a resilient dance, as you hold yourself up.”

“Spirit” is the almost spectral sonic refrain that accompanies a second shorter piece, projected across seven portrait-format screens, which Julianknxx uses brilliantly. Again, a lone dancer, Dorothée Munyaneza, performs, against a backdrop of ocean and harbour, the latter’s concrete blocks a perfect counterfoil to the Barbican’s architecture.

Moving slowly and deliberately around this border between land and sea, the female performer wears a silver coat on which the sunlight plays, just as it does on the waves, as if she is herself somewhere between earth and water. I thought of the Drexciya myth, in which the unborn children of pregnant enslaved women – among the 1.8 million African people who died in the Middle Passage – form an underwater civilisation. The dancer sometimes appears twice and at other times fades away, a kind of haunting of the scene, again reinforced by Julianknxx’s poetry: “Her body a vessel, marking flight paths.”

That haunting continues briefly in the show’s centrepiece, a 45-minute three-screen epic, encapsulating that 4,000 mile journey. In the different European centres, Julianknxx splices the scenes of fabric of the cities, with their embedded colonial histories and links to the transatlantic slave trade, with the African diasporic communities that dwell in them. They perform as choirs and are captured as filmic portraits.

We see dance and song amid the ponds of the Barbican and choral harmony on the Thames foreshore, against the backdrop of the City of London, which a voice reminds us was once “the global centre of slavery”. In Antwerp, transcendent singing is accompanied by images of the black hand chocolates that cannot but evoke the brutality of Leopold II’s oppression of people in Congo.

 (Barbican Conservatory)
(Barbican Conservatory)

The pacing across the three screens is superb. And while it is quite different in execution and structure, I was reminded in its tone and range of voices and images of another great show in this space: the film-maker John Akomfrah’s Purple in 2017. Both Akomfrah and Julianknxx pull off a rare feat of conjoining moods of elegy and resistance. In Chorus in Rememory of Flight, it’s embodied in the final scenes, as the choirs across the cities separately, yet as a united force, deliver a single line: “We are what’s left of us.” It’s a transcendent and poignant climax.

Ranjani Shettar: Cloud songs on the horizon

Meanwhile, the Barbican, under its recently appointed head of visual arts, Shanay Jhaveri, is at last beginning to use its wonderful conservatory, until now a relatively under-explored part of this cultural hotspot, more imaginatively.

The Indian sculptor Ranjani Shettar has been commissioned to respond to the space and she does so brilliantly. Using steel armatures cloaked in stained muslin cloth, Shettar has created sculptures that evoke fruits and seeds, insects and perhaps human forms, while remaining defiantly abstract. Some dance above water like demoiselles and dragonflies, others riff on the pods and petals of the plants around them.

A wooden form, made from a repurposed teak pillar, hangs over the fishpond inscrutably, viewable from multiple angles yet not wholly graspable. This is a perfectly judged opener to a series of commissions that promises much.

Cloud songs on the horizon by Ranjani Shettar is free to visit at Barbican Conservatory. To book tickets, visit the Barbican website. The commission is realised in partnership with the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA)

Julianknxx: Chorus in Rememory of Flight is at the Curve, Barbican Centre and on WePresent 14 September 2023 –11 February 2024. www.barbican.org.uk.