John Akomfrah

Born the son of Ghanaian political activists, artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah unapologetically tackles thorny debates around post-colonialism, diasporic memory and black identity in his praised and prized video works.

Text Eline Verstegen
Images © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Regarded as one of the most pioneering filmmakers today, Akomfrah’s career spans three decades of intellectual cine-essays. His works are recognized as simultaneously ravishing and harrowing inquiries into the human feeling of belonging. They often take the form of large-scale films, in which he migrates archival materials from their conventional context to his multichannel video installations. Akomfrah aims to unburden these historical objects of the past and demonstrate their openness to reinterpretation in combination with newly shot footage. Through this “image taking”, Akomfrah creates fragmentary dialogues, the gaps of which are to be filled in by the audience’s empathy. Stylistically the works are grappling processions of images that stick in the mind, usually gorgeously shot and rather slow-paced, nearly transforming them into haunting tableaux vivants.

Akomfrah had established his multi-layered practice and had taken aesthetics seriously as subject matter ever since his “Black Audio Film Collective” days. Together with David Lawson and Lina Gopaul he founded the collective in 1982, in dedication to the filmic exploration of black British Identity. “Handsworth Songs” (1986), about post-war migrants on the boulevard of broken dreams, was their big breakthrough, and the story of the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London consolidated Akomfrah’s idiosyncratic filmmaking.

Later works included “Mnemosyne” (2010), a film exposing the discrepancy between the idea of Britain as a promised land and the realities of racism and economic hardships, “The Unfinished Conversation” (2012), a touching portrait of black cultural theorist Stuart Hall, and “Peripeteia” (2012), a fictitious drama visualizing the lives of two individuals in 16th-century portraits by Albrecht Dürer.

At the 56th Venice Biennial perhaps his most famous piece premiered. The panoramic three-screen film installation “Vertigo Sea” (2015) is a visual exploration of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of “the sublime seas”. Akomfrah here juxtaposes distressing imagery of the whaling industry with that of generations of migrants crossing the ocean in search of a better life. He hence captures natural and historical horrors that happened at sea, evoking the feeling that the sea is an enigmatic witness of countless cruelties. However, in all its terror, it also looks astonishingly beautiful – as if it were the ultimate sublime experience.

In his most recent works, Akomfrah discards the archival footage, almost as if to stress the urgency of the works in relation to current global affairs. “The Airport” (2016) was inspired by the Greek crisis and is set in a transitory non-place, an airport close to Athens. Nothing keeps on happening, apart from the occasional ghostly travellers walking by, and the unacknowledged presence of an astronaut and an ape. Similarly, “Auto Da Fé” (2016) was made partly in response to the current “bleak culture of fear and intolerance” and brings together moments of 400 years of migration and religious persecution.

Critic Adrian Searle put it very eloquently that in the works of Akomfrah “past and present dissolve, leaving us stranded, waiting for the future”.

John Akomfrah (b. 1957, Accra) lives and works in London and holds a degree in Sociology from the University of Portsmouth. He has had numerous solo exhibitions including Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK (2016); STUK Kunstcentrum, Leuven, Belgium (2016); Arnolfini, Bristol, UK (2016); Bildmuseet Umeå, Sweden (2015); Tate Britain, London, UK (2013-14) and a week long series of screenings at MoMA, New York, USA (2011). His participation in international group shows has included: ‘The 1980s: Today’s Beginnings?’, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands (2016); ‘British Art Show 8’ (2015-17); ‘All the World’s Futures’, 56th Venice Biennale, Italy (2015); ‘History is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain’, Hayward Gallery, London, UK (2015); ‘Africa Now: Politcal Patterns’, SeMA, Seoul, South Korea (2014); Sharjah Biennial 11, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (2013); Liverpool Biennial, UK (2012) and Taipei Biennial, Taiwan (2012). He has also been featured in many international film festivals, including Sundance Film Festival, Utah, USA (2013 and 2011) and Toronto International Film Festival, Canada (2012). He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2008 and only recently awarded the biannual Artes Mundi Prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art.

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