Saturday, June 10, 2023
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Review: JMW Turner with Lamin Fofana at Tate Liverpool

In what will likely be most visitors’ last memory of Tate Liverpool as itself, before Liverpool Biennial, and its major refurbishment this October, ‘JMW Turner with Lamin Fofana: Dark Waters’ is a stamp in time to recall the value of access this building has given us all to the art world, both living and dead.

Though it shouldn’t be forgotten, that their next major show selected by Liverpool Biennial is the legacy of a project which brought Lamin Fofana to the city in the first place, and that the festival is as much a part of the identity of Tate Liverpool as many of their own exhibitions. Still, Turner and Fofana feels quite final. For me, it’s an essential moment to stop and reflect on what the gallery has done for us in its current state before a new era begins next year.

But, regardless of my fondness for Tate Liverpool, Dark Waters offers an essential opportunity to explore less attractive relationships between the Mersey and the Slave trade. Fofana’s audio installations provide the core content, but it is Turner’s work that sets its tone.

Turner’s work is presented more intimately than I have seen it until now, with flourishes of curatorial ambiance injected by Lamin Fofana. From sketchbooks and unfinished paintings to some of his most famous seascapes, there is a lot to take in, but all of it focussed on the thrashing and dramatic seas surrounding our isles – those same seas referenced in Lamin Fofana’s touching composition, ‘Life and Death by Sea’.

Neither work was made for this purpose, but with presence of mind on our (the audience’s) part, they can both be elevated by the simple act of waiting. The curators have faced much of the seating away from the gallery, intimately gazing on a handful of sketches and a now iconic view over the mouth of the River Mersey.

Flopping back into the timber benches, flickering my gaze between Turner’s paintings and the grey, beating waves of the river at high tide, I was acutely aware of the audio and unable to escape the painful past that the room so eloquently taught.

One of the key inspirations that ties the work of this unlikely duo together is the Zong massacre. In 1781, the crew of the slave ship, Zong, threw 130 enslaved Africans overboard into stormy seas. The reason? The crew ran out of drinking water. As the slaves were listed as cargo, they could be claimed against on insurance when they reached land, and the crew were able to reach shore comfortably.

The Zong was owned by a group led by William Gregson, then Lord Mayor of Liverpool, and who remained responsible for over 150 slaving voyages, and the transportation of 58,000 Africans. 9,000 enslaved Africans died at sea on his ships but the massacres of The Zong, in part, began a trail of mass opposition to slavery, which eventually led to its abolition.

Turner and Fofana both use the Zong as inspiration for parts of their work, with Fofana’s more recent audio installations and Turner’s 1840 painting ‘Slave Ship (Slavers throwing Overboard the Dead and dying, Typhoon Coming On)’ both reflecting directly on the Zong massacre.

There are lazy, and largely inaccurate, comparisons to be made between Tate, its setting, the docks, and the beating sea in Turner’s work. And comparisons which are lazier still between the space and the lasting trauma of the slave trade.

But, taking Tate as a lighthouse for the estuary, and the sea beyond – it is natural and appropriate to use Fofana’s audio compositions as a vessel – one that puts us as present in that beating sea of his Life and Death by Water, as any previous experience of Turner I’ve had.

I do not, cannot, and may never grasp the pain, injustice tragedy or turmoil that the slave trade has had on the lives of centuries of Black people living in our city, but just as it did the last time I heard these traumad melodies of Lamin Fofana, I found myself stunned to emotional and guilty silence.

It can take a visitor to shine your truth back at you. Fofana does this for Liverpool, and Turner is a useful tool for that expression. The use of his historic paintings, regardless of their inspiration is powerful as simple imagery, but made more notable thanks to selectively curated works, and a draw on those that criticised the actions of slave traders.

If this is my last experience of Tate Liverpool in its own light, by its own curators, and its own selection, it is one I will cherish, and one I will live by.

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

JMW Turner with Lamin Fofana: Dark Waters is open at Tate Liverpool until 24th September