In July 2022, SHOWstudio published Bodies of Knowledge with the author Emma Dabiri. The project - sought to challenge and reconsider how the black body has been represented and imagined in visual culture - enlisted 50 creatives to create a film in response to an assigned body part. One creative enlisted was the poet Julianknxx, who told SHOWstudio at the time that he 'hope(s) to highlight the difficulties that black people face moving through the world whilst being required to live their true self'. This sentiment continues to be ever-present in the artist's latest body of work, Chorus in Rememory of Flight, on show now at Barbican's The Curve gallery.
Co-commissioned with WePresent in partnership with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the exhibition marks the poet and filmmaker's first institutional solo exhibition. Consider it a big break, if you will, one that was meant to happen a very long time ago.
The Curve's three rooms are transformed as they each project a series of films inspired by Knox's European travels across nine different cities: Lisbon, Hamburg, Berlin, Marseille, Antwerp, Barcelona, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and London. Recorded conversations with black people from all walks of life form the bulk of the project, as do collaborations with choirs up and down the continent. Not hanging on any particular narrative, Chorus in Rememory of Flight doesn't set out to teach or preach; it's about finding beauty in communities that are often overlooked, beauty in their words, voices and most importantly, their existence.
With the space itself perfectly mirroring a series of encounters as we witness them on screen, I can think of few galleries more fitting to stage such a spectacle of joy. Screens light up with bodies of water and darken to reveal Knox's poetry, written in response to recorded conversations shown moments before. Sometimes, Knox's words are sole repetitions of conversations, imprinted on the screen to echo what we just heard, left for the viewer to dwell on ideas discussed. For example, in one snippet, a woman is talking to the camera about the implications of refusing to 'unlearn your racism', noting, 'If you do not unlearn your racism, you may miss out on the love of your life'; simple, but emphatically profound. These words vibrate on the screen, just as they did in my mind once I first processed them.
Speaking of the importance of The Curve in relation to his new body of work, Knox said in a statement:
'The Curve is a space that invites both artist and audience to embark on truly transformative journeys. This commission has allowed me to imagine The Curve through the collective dimension of the choir, which brings together diverse voices as a powerful conduit for memory and a testament to resistance. Through Chorus in Rememory of Flight, it is my hope that The Curve will become a place to engage audiences in active listening, continuous learning, and boundless exploration.'
The project charts a staggering 4,000 kilometres - a reflection on the many miles traversed by those interviewed as well as their ancestors throughout history. The past itself is a recurring theme in the show, revealed as something that can be adapted or changed to move with the times; something Knox is a firm believer of, proven by his adoption of the moniker Julianknxx to pry away from the history carried in his name, a lineage imposed by white slavers. Through the stories of people told on screen, Knox encourages the viewer to confront Europe's egregious past, its present and the possibility of harmony in its future.
When you're confronted with a body of work as graceful, emotive, honest and profound as Knox's, the task at hand is to communicate that beauty into a written review. Please do not think that's what this is; no review, no matter how full of praise, will ever live up to the beauty with which Knox imbues his work. What we can and will do is tell you to see the exhibition - an experience sure to leave its mark on you long after you've left the The Curve's enclosed space.