Hailing from Sierra Leone, Julianknxx dexterously utilises his life experiences as a lens through which he dismantles prevailing viewpoints concerning African art, historical narratives, and cultural expressions. Laden with symbolism, his works examine the Black experience of self-definition and redefinition, challenging conventional labels to build new and often unexpected collective narratives. Chorus in Rememory of Flight, currently on view at Barbican’s The Curve, is the first institutional solo exhibition by the poet, artist and filmmaker. Upon entering the gallery space, visitors are immersed in a multi-screen film installation borne out of a year in which Julianknxx has travelled to port cities across Europe to collaborate with Black choirs. Acting as a poetic archivist, he has collected their performances, testimonies, and contexts to create a series of films that reflect on choral song as a means of resistance to the eradication of difference. To learn more about the artist and his ambitious new commission, Something Curated spoke with Julianknxx.
SC: Can you give us some insight into your background and journey to artmaking?
J: My art journey traces back to my time living in Sierra Leone. I grew up in a time and place where stories and storytelling were central to everything from ceremonial events to church and family functions. The stories were full of life, depth and emotion and captivated me, to be honest. They became an integral part of who I am; I think my pursuit of creating and uncovering beautiful worlds with words and pictures is evident in my work. As well as this, moving to England was a big shift and finding where I fit in was a challenge. In those early days, I started writing poetry and it became a way to express my experiences and navigate the feelings of not completely fitting in.
SC: Tell us about your ambitious new commission, Chorus in Rememory of Flight — how was the project born?
J: Chorus in Rememory of Flight can be traced back to a residency I undertook in Amsterdam in 2021 that culminated in a performance at Stedelijk Museum. This residency was made possible through a commission by WePresent. I created a film from that experience, which the Barbican got to see and from there, they extended their support by commissioning the film and extending the project to include more cities in Europe.
SC: Could you expand on your exploration of choral song as a means of resistance?
J: My exploration of the chorus as a means of resistance is deeply rooted in the experiences of the Black diaspora. I believe in some way we share a common chorus and a collective expression of our identity and struggles. What’s truly remarkable is how this shared musical language serves as a way for us to come together, to unite and to collaborate. It’s a form of radical therapy, a powerful means of healing that happens when we join our voices and spirits. Through this communal singing, we find strength and solace, creating a connection that is truly transformative. To quote Tina Campt, the chorus “is a complex and delicate balancing act.”
SC: How have you approached utilising The Curve as a site of display?
J: My approach has been to treat The Curve as a pathway of meaningful encounters and a site of performance space rather than a traditional gallery. The emphasis is on creating an experience, where visitors come to witness a sequence of performances.
SC: Your work draws on the writings of Paule Marshall and Lorna McDaniel, among others; can you talk more about the influence of these scholars on your practice?
J: I love Lorna McDaniel’s book The Big Drum Ritual Of Carriacou: Praisesongs in Rememory of Flight. The title of my work is of course a nod to the subtitle of her book. Lorna McDaniel and Paule Marshall’s book Praisesong For The Widow are part of my model for diasporic scholarship. I also really love Toni Morrison’s thinking on rememory, about “History versus memory, and memory versus memorylessness.” She talks about rememory as in “recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family; the population of the past.” Morrison’s thinking of rememory is a powerful tool that allows me to delve into personal and collective histories. I’ve integrated it into my practice as a method of recounting our history through listening.
SC: Favourite place to spend time in London, aside from home?
J: One of my favourite spots in London is Tate Modern. For me, it’s a massive playground and site for inspiration.
Julianknxx: Chorus in Rememory of Flight runs at Barbican Art Gallery until 11 February 2024.
Feature image: Julianknxx: Chorus in Rememory of Flight, Installation view Barbican Art Gallery, 14 September 2023 – 11 February 2024. © Eva Herzog / Barbican Art Gallery