LIMERICK, Ireland — Still (the) Barbarians is the bold title for this year’s EVA International Biennial in Limerick. The curator, Koyo Kouoh, of Raw Material Company, has turned what might seem obvious, invisible, or banal into a quandary of infinite possibilities. Spread across Limerick’s city center, the biennial’s highlights are at the Limerick City Gallery of Art, Cleeves Condensed Milk Factory, the Sailor’s Home, and Ormston House. For three months, art lovers drifted in and out of 50 commissioned projects by 57 artists, nine of them Irish, displayed across six sites, all within walking distance.
The theme was inspired largely by the centenary of the Easter Rising in April 1916 when a small group of Irish militiamen rebelled against British rule. For EVA Chair Hugh Murray, this show “offers a compelling reflection on the history and legacy of our colonial past.” The title derives its blunt name from “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a poem by Constantine Cavafy (1898), in which the “barbarians,” who were seen to be distant, other, and unruly, are nowhere to be found. This gave Koyo a unique opportunity to drive forth a more radical understanding of post-colonialism, and the myths of barbarism that come with it. Koyo proudly noted that the show “invites us to look at the postcolonial condition on a comparative level” — especially in the heart of Ireland, arguably Britain’s first and longest colonial experiment, which is quite easy to forget.
What makes the show so compelling is that it helps us deconstruct the tropes of colonialism, perhaps even barbarism, and the vestiges of empire, Britain’s in particular. I grew up in London, feeling like an outcast and longing for Ethiopia, where I was born. I was also at odds with the city’s grandiose architecture, the might of the English language, and how colonial history was very rarely taught at school. In contrast, ‘multiculturalism,’ felt more like a mirage than a term with which I could identify. Back in April, as I walked around Limerick, I realized just how much Ireland had been diminished under British rule. People no longer spoke any Irish and the empire had made its indelible mark. Perry Square might as well have been London.
Most of the art at EVA, commissioned especially for the biennial, is agile. It bends stereotypes about the scope of loss, place, commodity, and language, toeing the line between fact and fiction, to recount its own post-colonial stories, which also morph into meta-histories.
Traces of dispossession are all around us at the Limerick City Gallery of Art. Mary Evans and Hera Büyüktaşciyan delicately chart the frail landscape of memory, absence, and loss caused by migration. Evans’s “Thousands are Sailing” (2016) is named after a song from 1988 by The Pogues, a Celtic London band. The lyrics struck a chord with the artist, who had really fond memories of growing up among Irish kids in London. This is quite a serene tribute to migration, one that echoes the Nigerian artist’s own memories of London as a child, and Irish emigration to North America. Exploring the legacies of the British Empire, Evans’s deliberate use of flat, monotone craft paper silhouettes form a wall installation that reveals how disposable migrants have become. She describes it as her “own migrant story,” and the silhouettes, as “cyphers” that stand for “Everyman,” especially at a time when migrants and refugees in Britain are reviled, perhaps just like the ‘barbarians’ in Cavafy’s poems.
In “Destroy Your Home, Build Up a Boat, Save Life!” (2014–15), Hera Büyüktaşciyan draws on collective memory to understand absence, offering us a defiant narrative of hope through Enik, the Babylonian God of water who, despite all odds, builds a boat for stowaways. This serves as a metaphor for rescue, survival, and perseverance. A large rolled carpet installation right in front of Evans’s silhouettes conjures a heavy sense of loss, and flight that is overcome by a strong presence.
Architecture isn’t quite what it seems. At least not when it comes to works by Michael Joo. He interrogates the spatial function of materials across time. “This beautiful striped wreckage (which we interrogate)” is Michael Joo’s three-part installation in the Sailor’s Home, a derelict building from 1857 on O’Curry Street. The artist reconfigures this disused space, once inhabited by Irish sailors, with sturdy sculptural forms; a sheer, two-screen video installation that shows a skeletal Buddha, evoking trauma and frailty; and heavy, rusting objects that resemble wreckage. Joo wants to resuscitate the shared history of Ireland and Britain, to unearth their common identity. He does this by filling the crumbling architecture with found objects that are both familiar and alien to the space, which “all, in their own way showed evidence of technological or biological colonization,” he said in an email.
Back at Cleeves Condensed Milk Factory, Uriel Orlow focuses on the micro-histories of nature, what he calls “oblique witnesses” as seen through the “architectures of imprisonment,” to mine the invisible memories of apartheid. In “Grey, Green, Gold,” Orlow looks at the haunting story of Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island for 18 years and the garden he had kept. Meanwhile, a new yellow flower species was being bred at the national botanical garden in Cape Town, only to be called ‘Mandela Gold’ at the end of apartheid. Uriel draws parallels between these two events to show just how far plants, albeit caged like prisoners, can be vectors of power and resistance, carrying the vestiges of history as though they were monuments of time.
Back at the Limerick City Gallery, the white walls were dotted with delicate lace circles. Godfried Donkor often explores the shared history of Europe and Africa by looking at how people have been commodified as a result of the colonial experience. Known for using lace as a poignant critique of empire and exploitation, in “Rebel Madonna Lace Collection” (2016), Donkor traces the dicey history of cultural exchange and possession with handmade lace from Limerick and manufactured in Ghana, donning two mannequins in a jumpsuit and straightjacket. This project made Donkor realize just how similar the history of lace in Limerick and Ghana was in terms of how the material was being exploited by greater colonial powers.
Language has always been a marker of human identity and erasure, especially during colonial rule. At Ormston House, a cultural center in Limerick, guest curator Christine Eyene unveiled Murder Machine as part of the EVA biennial alongside Koyo Kuouh. Drawing parallels between Ireland and South Africa through language, writing, and photography, Eyene pointed out in an email that Murder Machine ”asks questions relating to some of the local realities … sometimes concealed by the legacy of colonization.” This was confirmed by Ceara Conway’s heartening performance, “Dubh” (after Roisín Dubh, Dark Rosaleen), a 16th-century political hymn, sung in Irish to pay tribute to the end of Gaelic Ireland. This event drew large crowds, as well as the local community. The original Murder Machine was a pamphlet written by Irish writer and activist Padraig H. Pearse, who despised British rule: “Education should foster; this education is meant to repress. Education should inspire; this education is meant to tame.” Eyene was especially drawn to Pearse’s work because although he was referring specifically to Ireland, “some of the words he uses clearly echo the African colonial context,” which indeed they do.
Still (the) Barbarians is a bold reminder that we can’t take anything for granted, least of all history, and particularly what remains of the British Empire. Koyo urges us to confront some of the ugly, hidden truths of colonialism in such beautiful, imaginative, and peculiar ways. This is a show where disparate narratives of loss and defeat bleed into one another, only to emerge as epic stories of triumph that disrupt our preconception about loss, space, language, and possession after colonialism. But they also leave us wondering who or what the ‘barbarians’ were/are, and if that even really matters anymore.