The multidisciplinary artist travelled across Europe to create Chorus in Rememory of Flight, an immersive exhibition that sees beyond the dominant narrative of colonial history to tell stories about the Black experience
To say Julianknxx’s first institutional solo exhibition Chorus in Rememory of Flight has been a journey would be an understatement. Having travelled 4,000 kilometres across Europe, passing through Hamburg, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Marseille, Barcelona and Lisbon, from his base in London, this journey was more akin to an odyssey. Semantics, maybe. But as a multidisciplinary artist building new worlds through poetry, performance, film, music, and sculpture, Juliankxx is a master of meaning.
Previous films such as In Praise of Still Boys, In A Dream We Are At Once Beautiful, and Black Corporeal (Between This Air), each revealed the artist’s gift for weaving local and global histories with beautiful visuals. His curiosity to examine human experiences and investigate the structures that hold us together and apart is a throughline, and Chorus in Rememory of Flight does just that. It manifests his year-long travels through Europe into a multi-screen film installation stitching together the testimonies, performances, and presences of Blackness and those he met living in European cities steeped in colonial history. Those 4,000 kilometres, beyond himself, are a rumination on the ancestral journeys made over centuries. For the lives ruptured when they were forcibly removed from their homes and transported across the Atlantic Ocean.
Stepping into Barbican’s The Curve, we’re engulfed by a blue space reminiscent of the oceans that divide us. We’re met with a vast two-channel screen filled with a dancer cutting through a Berlin train station with equal parts pain and ecstasy. Julianknxx’s poetry tumbles onto the screen. As we are swept along the bend of The Curve, Chorus in Rememory of Flight spills onto seven smaller screens. There’s enough distance between each so it feels like a reminder of the self, fragmented. A woman appears on the screens cloaked in a silver garment shimmering in the wind. It gives us a moment of pause before we continue into the guts of the Curve, where the film culminates in choirs singing, water flowing, and stories told. A reading room also encourages further reflection, learning, and listening.
Julianknxx uses music as an ‘in’, a conduit to tease stories and memories buried under layers of the ‘history’ we’re taught. Borrowing Toni Morrison’s technique of ‘rememory’ – the process of remembering and reliving past traumatic experiences – this ancestral act of listening to others, of hearing their truths, was crucial to Julianknxx’s practice. “It’s the idea that history should be told from the ground up rather than top-down,” he explains. “It’s not reading a history book that was told by, say Columbus, because then you are forever defined by the idea that you were ‘discovered’. So before that, you weren’t there?”
Echoing throughout the film are choirs riffing on Julianknxx’s line “we are what’s left of us” – originally a stanza from his film In Praise of Still Boys. Here, the choir is a metaphor for community, and each chorister liberates a multitude of histories from deep inside their bellies. For Julianknxx, “we are what’s left of us” raises more questions than it offers answers. “If we are what’s left of the diaspora – where are we now?” he questions. “We are what’s left of us from the ones that have gone before us, but we can decide how we move forward from here. If I asked that question to the choirs, what would they give back? And how will they give it back to me?” This process was deeply collaborative. By providing the words and the melody, Julianknxx opened space for each choir to expand and fill it as they saw fit. “The intention was that I would come in and out. I had to make space for what was being said,” he says. “The work asked me to step aside and let people shine.”
For each person Julianknxx met during the year of making Chorus in Rememory of Flight, he asked them for an ‘offering’, which he then received through active listening, or ‘rememory’. “If you listen to people wherever you go, hear local stories, you’ll see that their histories are layered,” he explains. “You have to filter through and find people speaking themselves into existence and what they think is their past.” Some danced, others had a cup of tea, and one woman simply fell asleep – exhausted from recounting her life as a Black woman in Europe. Each offering was a unique, abstract or physical embodiment of Black people’s experiences in the European cities they have come to call home. “I’m not necessarily looking for facts,” Julianknxx says frankly, “but what’s connected; what makes you human in this conversation; and what are the histories that come with you? I didn’t want it to be a historical documentary per se; it’s more about conveying the feeling of the cities and the people I met.”
“If you listen to people wherever you go, hear local stories, you’ll see that their histories are layered. You have to filter through and find people speaking themselves into existence and what they think is their past” – Julianknxx
At some point during his travels, “It just clicked,” and Julianknxx realised he was witnessing the power that song has to carry cultural memory through space and time, and ensure its survival. “When you think about how people have gathered throughout history, we often sing the same songs in communion,” he says. “There’s something that connects all of us when we sing. It’s a therapeutic practice that does something to the body. It’s cathartic. In Black communities, we use singing as a release or affirmation.”
Julianknxx’s own life is the linchpin around which he makes his work. Born in Freetown in Sierra Leone, his family fled civil war when he was ten, seeking refuge in The Gambia before settling in the UK at 15. Now 36, Julianknxx returned to his birthplace in 2020 for the first time, and in response he created In Praise of Still Boys, a moving ode to Black boys living by the Atlantic. “After this project, I’ve reconciled that I’m floating through life, that tying myself to a particular land doesn’t work for me,” he says. “It limits our boundlessness and how much we can expand, how much we can learn from each other, and how much we can grow.” While he considers himself Sierra Leonean by birth, “It's a jumping off point rather than a destination,” he says. “It’s where I’m thinking from. A place by the Atlantic Ocean, [which] through its lens I can see the rest of the world.”
The writings of Paule Marshall, particularly Praisesong for the Widow (1983) and Lorna McDaniel, whose Praisesongs in Rememory of Flight (1998) he borrows for the exhibition’s title, are deeply influential to the film. Julianknxx also grounds himself with an Igbo proverb from the late Nigerian novelist, poet, and pioneer of modern African literature, Chinua Achebe, who wrote: ‘The world is like a mask dancing. If you want to see it well, you do not stand in one place.’ “I really like that quote,” Julianknxx says. “It’s this idea that you have to constantly learn and engage with others so you can be alive. You have to lift other people up, open space for them, so we can all survive this Earth.”
300 million years ago, the Earth was the supercontinent Pangaea. The northernmost part of Africa connected with the southeastern part of Europe, and the watery borders that separate us as continents were nonexistent. “If you take the water away, it’s just one ugly rock we all live on,” ponders Julianknxx. Just as water began to flow between lands, so did humans. “I’ve found that Blackness is everywhere, and so is humanity. It’s not limited to a place. I think you can make a home where you feel safe, but there has to be movement, spiritually and physically. One has to move.”
“I’m not necessarily looking for facts, but what’s connected; what makes you human in this conversation; and what are the histories that come with you?”
All throughout Chorus in Rememory of Flight is water, a recurring motif in Julianknxx’s work. “For most cultures, the water is spiritual and this place of departure, possibility, food, wealth, another world. But there’s also the history and trauma of the slave trade,” Julianknxx says. For him, water is a gateway that leads him to what he needs to say. “I’ve always returned to water as a starting place because it holds everything for me. If I follow the water, I could end up anywhere.”
Wherever the water takes him, we’ll follow.
Chorus in Rememory of Flight runs at Barbican’s The Curve until 11 February 2024. It is co-commissioned by WePresent and Barbican. WePresent has published an oral history.