Say it in Chorus:
Julianknxx at Barbican

“You can change with the Other while being yourself, you are not one, you are multiple, and you are yourself.” These are the words of philosopher and literary critic Édouard Glissant. In 2009, Manthia Diawara, along with his camera, followed Glissant aboard the Queen Mary II on a transatlantic journey from Southampton, England to Brooklyn, New York. The boat, Glissant says, is “a sign of catching up the time lost; the time that you cannot let slip away.” Sierra Leonian artist Julian Knox, known as Julianknxx, takes inspiration from Glissant’s work. He makes a staggering journey, this time to Europe, having already embarked on projects to Antwerp, Barcelona, Hamburg, Lisbon, London, Marseille and Rotterdam. The artist travelled to port cities to create a series of films reflecting on choral song as a means of resistance. These pieces are now on display at Barbican Centre, London, in a poignant multimedia installation. Here, audiences can experience video displays that look at the power of local community through dance, music and testimony. We are asked what it means to survive in the face of personal and public disaster, as Julianknxx explores how culture and memory persist across large spaces of time and distance.  

In addition to Glissant, Julianknxx also draws on American writer Paule Marshall (Praisesong for the Widow, 1983) and Lorna McDaniel (Praisesongs in the Rememory of Flight, 1988). The praisesong, a significant oral tradition and poetic form, captures the essence of animals, objects and humans. Julianknxx incorporates this into a “listening practice” that focuses on Black subjective experiences. He explains that the idea is rooted in his African heritage, where listening to tales from older people is a part of everyday life. “Back home, you listen to your elders—your uncle, your mum, your grandma—just saying stuff about the past or their day,” he says. What distinguishes this form of storytelling is that they are told “with a lot of aliveness.” 

This exhibition is a culmination of stories. In Barcelona, Julianknxx examines the city’s port, its colonial explorations and the two million Spanish people who are of African descent today. He investigates the documented and undocumented demographic, heavily composed of street vendors or “manteros.” The resulting work functions as social practice: it examines mistreatment and manipulation by police and legal systems, in order to make certain populations “disappear.” Elsewhere, in the Netherlands, Julianknxx looks at arrival of Black populations from Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean following WWII. At the time, the white population of Bijlmer – a modernist city of concrete housing towers just outside of Amsterdam – did not welcome migrants with open arms. As such, the living conditions of the area quickly deteriorated. This was later exacerbated by a plane accident that crashed into an apartment building in the district in 1992. The incident left 43 residents dead, although this number was likely higher due to the number of undocumented people living there. The event reminds us of contemporary examples of neglect, like the 2017 Grenfell fire, where safety concerns were repeatedly ignored before the tragedy. As Debo Amon writes, “Yet now, after the devastation and reconstruction of both buildings and community, gentrification has brought disdain and negligence and onto those who survived once again.” Julianknxx responds with a video entitled The Tree That Saw Everything. It engages with a tree in the Bijlmer district that “still stands despite the weight of all it knows.” Here, the memorialisation of everyday objects becomes a way to strain against injustice and offer an alternative view of official accounts.

Julianknxx is deeply engaged with other artists,  and creative people form an integral part of his tapestry of stories. He uses what he calls a “listening practice” to create a comfortable and safe environment in which to collaborate with them. Then, they are encouraged to express themselves in any kind of way. “I say to them, ‘Whatever offering you want to give as part of my listening is what I’ll take’,’’ he says. In WePresent’s online version of the exhibition, Precious Adina explains: “the experiences in the city vary considerably. One artist asked if Julianknxx could film her sleeping because she was tired of talking. “So we went to her flat and sat down. She was wearing her robe. She talked to me for a couple of minutes and just went to bed.”

Elsewhere, Karel Kouelany, an artist in Marseille, invited Julianknxx to his performance, where he and another dancer, Joël Assebako, performed atop a stage covered in salt. “They have their own music that they are dancing to, but for the audience, all you can hear is the salts,” he says, adding that visitors were encouraged to bring their own headphones though many chose to listen to the sound of their movement. The performance was a reinterpretation of a Congolese ritual that serves as a rite of passage for young men. In Berlin, another performer, Natisa Ka, asked Julianknxx to meet him inside an underground train station. When Julianknxx arrived, he was shirtless and equipped with a boombox to accompany his seemingly improvised dance amongst curious commuters. “The whole place was mesmerised by what he was doing. It was a dialogue — him using his body as a way to show what the city was like for him.””

These films encourage new perspectives on what it means to be caught between multiple places. This is rooted in Julianknxx’s own diasporic experience, having grown up in Sierra Leone, before being forced to leave the country for The Gambia and later the UK, as a result of civil war when he was 10 and 15 respectively. “Blackness, to me, is this thing that I wear that means different things in different places and can be read in multiple ways,” he says. “I love exploring Blackness because when I was in Sierra Leone, I didn’t call myself a ‘Black person’ but when I came to England, I had to identify myself in that way.” The resulting installation is a “living archive with a trail” of stories. It challenges structures of power, encouraging audiences to look again at histories that have been erased from contemporary knowledge.

Julianknxx: Chorus in Rememory of Flight | Until February 2024


Julianknxx, Production still of Chorus in Rememory of Flight, 2023 © Studioknxx

Julianknxx,Still of (Breathing by Numbers), 2022, Black Corporeal © Studioknxx

Julianknxx, Production still of Chorus in Rememory of Flight, 2023 © Studioknxx

Julianknxx, Production still of Chorus in Rememory of Flight, 2023 © Studioknxx