IN COLLABORATION WITH BARBICAN

Chorus in Rememory of Flight Julianknxx’s cinematic archive of Black life

Chorus In Rememory of Flight (Artist still), 2023, Courtesy of Studioknxx © Julianknxx
Published
WordsPrecious Adesina

WePresent has partnered with the Barbican to co-commission Sierra Leonean artist Julianknxx on his multimedia film installation “Chorus in Rememory of Flight.” For this piece of work, the artist traveled around Europe, exploring largely untold stories of Black and African diasporic realities and collaborating with local musicians and choirs. The project will be on show in The Curve gallery at the Barbican, London from 14 September 2023 to 11 February 2024. Writer Precious Adesina meets Julian at home in London to learn how he has made this new cinematic archive of Black lives.

Watch a WePresent-exclusive online edition of “Chorus in Rememory of Flight” below, and scroll to the bottom of this page to explore the other chapters in this commission.

The Black stories that reach the limelight often centre around the same aspects of British and American history. But the London-based Sierra Leonean artist Julian Knox, known professionally as Julianknxx, is changing that. “I want to see how those lines lead back to the spaces I’m in,” he says in his studio in central London, wearing a black jumper, dark trousers and large tortoiseshell glasses. Knox’s interest in lesser-known Black histories—suggested by the copious amounts of books surrounding him—has especially fuelled his latest work in progress, “Chorus in Rememory of Flight,” a multi-screen video piece in collaboration with the London arts organization the Barbican and WePresent. It will be shown at the Barbican exhibition space, The Curve, from September.

Julianknxx, Chorus In Rememory of Flight, Chœur Boras, Marseille, 2023, Courtesy Studioknxx © Julianknxx
Julianknxx, Chorus In Rememory of Flight, Chœur Boras, Marseille, 2023, Courtesy Studioknxx © Julianknxx

The 36-year-old creates pieces that elegantly combine poetry, music and film. Knox says he is curious about “how poems live outside of the stage”, noting that while most of his work centers around weighty topics, he also wants to create “beautiful moments”. One of Knox's most popular pieces, “Black Corporeal (Between This Air)”, filmed in 2020 during the first lockdown in the UK, has been made into four-minute and 13-minute-long video works exploring the hyper-politicized relationship between Black bodies and breathing. It is, as he wrote in his artist statement at the time, “more than our lungs’ ability to take in air, but a reflection of the way we live, individually and together”.

Julianknxx, Chorus In Rememory of Flight, Natisa Ka, Berlin, 2023, Courtesy Studioknxx © Julianknxx

Alongside his words, the videos feature dancers dressed vibrantly, as well as a choir repeating the refrain “breathe”. His unique approach to poetry has seen his art exhibited and performed at many international establishments, including Whitechapel Gallery in London, Gulbenkian in Lisbon and Stedelijk Museum in the Netherlands. “Knox’s practice is like nothing that I’ve seen before, and it excites me because it communicates many of the ideas and questions many of us who are of the African diaspora are constantly exploring,” adds British-Nigerian curator Péjú Oshin, who included Julian’s work in “Rites of Passage”, an exhibition on contemporary artists who investigate histories of migration in their work, on at the London branch of the Gagosian. “He, for me, is one of the most exciting artists working today.”

Part of Knox’s interest in Black stories comes from his own. He grew up in Sierra Leone before being forced to leave the country for The Gambia at around 10 years old as a result of the civil war, later moving to the UK at the age of 15. “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.”

Julianknxx, Chorus In Rememory of Flight, Karel Kouelany & Joël Assebako, Marseille, 2023, Courtesy Studioknxx © Julianknxx
Julianknxx, Chorus In Rememory of Flight, Karel Kouelany & Joël Assebako, Marseille, 2023, Courtesy Studioknxx © Julianknxx

The year 2020 was a pivotal one for Knox for another reason; it was the first time he returned to his home country since he left. He explains that while he still strongly recognises himself as Sierra Leonean, it was a shock how much things there have changed. His last memories of the country were associated with the war (“burnt houses and the smell of smoke”) and the remnants of these ruins no longer existed on his return. “I spent the whole night crying. It was overwhelming,” he recalls. In response, Knox made “In Praise of Still Boys” (2020), reflecting on his childhood through the lens of young Sierra Leonean boys who live by the Atlantic Ocean. While working on the short film made him feel closer to home, it also made him aware of a sense of displacement. “It was the first time I felt like I was not all the way Sierra Leonean, but I’m not all the way British,” he says. “It altered the way I view myself.” 

“Chorus in Rememory of Flight” will document Knox’s ventures in various European cities, including Antwerp, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Hamburg, Barcelona and Marseille, where he has researched Black stories that the wider world is less likely to have encountered. He has found these accounts through meeting with different groups of creatives with his director of photography Pablo Rojo, and using what he calls a “listening practice.” “It’s just sitting down with people and listening to them, especially Black people,” he says, remarking that the idea is rooted in his African heritage, where listening to tales from people older than you is a common 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 for Knox is that they are told “with a lot of aliveness,” an energy he hopes his work will capture.

Julianknxx, In Praise of Still Boys, 2022, Courtesy of Studioknxx © Julianknxx

Knox approaches his “listening practice” by creating an informal environment where artists can express themselves however they see fit. “I say to them, ‘Whatever offering you want to give as part of my listening is what I’ll take’,’’ he says. Consequently, the experiences in the city vary considerably. One artist asked if Knox 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.” Karel Kouelany, a male artist in Marseille, invited Knox to his performance, where he and another dancer, Joël Assebako, performed nude 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 an artistic reinterpretation of a Congolese ritual that serves as a rite of passage for young men. In Berlin, another performer Natisa Ka asked Knox to meet him inside an underground train station at six o’clock. When Knox arrived, he was shirtless and equipped with a boombox to accompany his seemingly improvised dance exhibited among curious commuters. “The whole train station was mesmerized by what he was doing,” Knox says. “It was a dialogue—him using his body as a way to show what the city was like for him.”

Most notably, as part of these trips, Knox spent time with choirs, a recurring theme in much of his work. In Marseille, the artist met with Chœur Boras: an all-women group from the Comoro Islands. According to Knox, the husband of the choir's lead singer returned to the Comoro Islands to document the lullabies women sang to their children, a vital part of Comorian oral traditions. In “Africa: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society,” edited by Toyin Falola and Daniel Jean-Jacques, it is written that, “the lullabies focus, among other things, on the challenges of pregnancy, difficulties related to education, the dreams of a better future, and the expectation for the child. Over time, these lullabies have become a repository of information on Comorian society.” The lead singer’s husband grew up listening to these lullabies and hopes the choir will not only keep this form of singing alive among his community in Marseille but help to ensure that knowledge of such traditions is not lost with time. “He went back to collect [the lullabies] and asked his wife what they could do with them, and she started the choir,” Knox says, noting that when he visited the group, they cooked and sang for him. 

Knox hopes his work will serve as a “living archive with a trail” for alternative histories that people have yet to have explored or that have been “intentionally” erased from contemporary knowledge. “Part of that, I think, is searching and looking at the multiple ways we’ve come into Europe and exist in Europe,” he says. His work, a powerful lullaby of its own, is just the beginning.

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

“Chorus in Rememory of Flight” has been co-commissioned by the Barbican and WePresent by WeTransfer in partnership with Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and with support from De Singel.

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Chorus in Rememory of Flight

DIRECTOR

Julianknxx


PRODUCERS

Julianknxx
Debo Amon


DOP

Pablo Rojo


SECOND CAMERA

Julianknxx


EDITOR

Harry Deadman


SUPERVISING FIXER

Anais Bremond


PRODUCTION MANAGER

Sorcha Bradford


PRODUCTION COORDINATOR

Priya Palak


COORDINATOR

Kazvare Knox


EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS

Julianknxx
Debo Amon
Patrick Bedeau


ORIGINAL SCORE

Paul Cousins


ADDITIONAL SOUND DESIGN

Aron Kyne
Anais Kane
THABO


COLOUR EXECUTIVE PRODUCER (ELECTRIC THEATRE COLLECTIVE)

Olivia Jessop


COLORIST (ELECTRIC THEATRE COLLECTIVE)

Megan Lee


ADDITIONAL EDITING

Pav Ptak


ADDITIONAL EDITING

Assembly Rooms


EXECUTIVE PRODUCER @ ASSEMBLY ROOMS

Candice Chubb


PRODUCER @ ASSEMBLY ROOMS

Taise Kerr


GRAPHIC DESIGN

Zak Group


Researchers

Ethel-Ruth Tawe
Jesse Bernard
Jonah Freud


Assistant Researchers

Elisha Tawe
Wairimũ Nduba


ANTWERP

Fixer
Alex Mohammadi


Assistant Camera

Chris West


Additional Editing (Assembly Rooms)

Amanda Marie-Rose


Contributors

Shamisa Debroey
Omar Ba
Octave Komlan


Contributor / Choir

Junior Akwety


Choir

Didier Petis Likeng
Noah Nzuamo
Daddy Waku
Cristina Sapalo
Aline Bosuma
Theresa Kisanga Bora
Emeline Malundama
Sarah Engelen


AMSTERDAM/ROTTERDAM


Fixers

Sekai Makoni
Shantelle Palmer


Assistant Camera

Chris West


Additional Editing (Assembly Rooms)

Jacob Kennedy


Contributors

Peggy Brandon
Clide Essemboom
Quincy Gario
Randell Heye
Junior Koney
Aruna Vermeulen
Malique Mohamud
Shaquille Shaniqua
Kemo Camara
Rabi Bah
Sumia Jaama
Nevill Mitchell


Choir

Elique Curiel
Sherefa Yorks
Altagracia Nortan
Charmaine Charlemagne
Gideon Luciana
Jefferson da Veiga
Murvien La Croes
Velorisa Yorks
Giovanni van Gom
Ilanga Abel
Jo-Anne Blindeling
Shanice Redan


MARSEILLE


Fixer

Anaïs BREMOND


Production assistant

Abigail NKALY


Sound recordist

Matthias BRESCH


Additional Editing (Assembly Rooms)

Imogen Perry


Contributors

Soly
Marie-Rose Frigiere AKA Nga Rose KEDE NGUELE
Dorothée MUNYANEZA
Stéphanie COUDERT
Bwalya NEWTON
Sun AFRIKA
Nadjatie BACAR
Martin GRIZZELL
Lily LISON
Karel KELOUANI
Joel ASSEBAKO
Choeur Boras
Fatima AHMED
Stéphanie HAMADI
Roukya ISSOUF
Fatou IBOURA
Saoudat MOHAMED MZE
Nasrati ALI MOHAMED
Mariama HAMADI


BARCELONA


Fixer

Momma Roma Films


Production Assistant

Sofia Garcia


Runner

Azzurra Carillo


Sound recordist

Gabriel Cohen


Assistant Subtitle and Audio Translator (Spanish to English)

Amaka McLachlan


Contributors

Dai Sombra
Jeffrey Abé Pans
Karina Martins
Mani Tapes
Kelly Lua
Priscilla Barbosa
Uma Jawo
Skarra Mucci
Yolanda Sey (The Sey Sisters)
Kathy Sey (The Sey Sisters)
Edna Sey (The Sey Sisters)


Choir

Dona Gospel (with the collaboration of Lloc de la Dona)


HAMBURG/BERLIN


Fixer

Noor-Cella Bena


Sound Engineer

Jonathan Guillet


Runner

Fabio Pollmeier


Producers @ ASSEMBLY ROOMS

Troy Smith
Taise Kerr


Additional Editing (Assembly Rooms)

Leon Carlton


Contributors

Katharina Oguntoye
Jumoke Adeyanju
Natisa Ka
Maseho
Josephine Apraku
Justice Mvemba
Sista Oloruntoyin
Adetoun Küppers-Adebisi
Tanja Bah
Melanie Erzuah
Yemisi Babatola
Feben Amara
Aline Benecke
A. Sheikhelmi


Choir

Larissa Tsevi-Unterdörfer (A Song For You)
Sidney Kwadjo-Frenz (A Song For You)
Sorvina Carr (A Song For You)
Maëlle Fiand (A Song For You)
Monica Mussungo (A Song For You)
Afroditi-Founmilaio Kouantri (A Song For You)
Ikuma Lumeya (A Song For You)
Shanice Efia (A Song For You)


LISBON


Fixer

Ricardo Almeida


Additional Editing (Assembly Rooms)

Bruna Manfredi


Contributors

Tristany Mundu
Ekua Yankah
Djuzé Neves
Lolo Arziki
Mava José
Oseias Xavier
Paulo Pascoal
Rolaísa
Djuzé Neves
Paulo Pascoal


LONDON

Fixer

Ayomide Alli


ASSISTANT CAMERA

Julian And Esteban Lalinde


SOUND RECORDIST

Matthew Peters


STYLIST & COSTUME DESIGNER

Raphael Hirsch


ASSISTANT STYLIST

Storm Foster


COSTUMES MADE BY

Eastwood Danso


SEAMSTRESS

Siah Howard


COSTUME ASSISTANT

Jack Webster


Contributors

Thabo Mkwananzi
tyroneisaacstuart
George Shire
Patrick Bedeau


CHOIR

Marsha B Morrison
Alicia Saddler
OURAA
Aaron Edward Frazier
Russell Blackman
Jade Joseph
Jabez Walsh


SPECIAL THANKS

Dan Fenton
João Thurner
Fernanda Medeiros
Gloria Casal
Jo Harris
Gisela Casimiro
Joacine Katar
Mónica de Miranda
Jacqui Soliman
Akasha Hub
Guzzo Bar
L'oculta
Casal Mas Guinardó
Tic-Tac
Buriti
Librería La Ploma
Librería La Social