John Akomfrah

In an influential career spanning four decades, John Akomfrah’s work has explored themes of injustice, intolerance and persecution, often through the lens of migration in its myriad forms. His works are characterised by investigations of post-colonialism and the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the United States. This self-titled exhibition features two multi-screened video installations – Vertigo Sea (2015) and Auto Da Fé (2016).

Vertigo Sea premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale and draws on themes of migration and our relationship with the sea. The world’s oceans have long cast a spell over our imagination – for aeons they must have seemed an endless, impassable expanse, determining our earliest ancestors’ migration routes across the world. As we developed ways to cross the seas they still remained a foreboding place, feared by generations of seafarers and explorers, as well as being the grisly stage for some of humankind’s most cruel exploitation of the natural world. And of course the ocean was the highway by which the abominable trans-Atlantic slave trade flourished for centuries. Vertigo Sea combines archival film and photography, newly filmed high definition material, video from the archives of the BBC Natural History film unit and readings from classical literature sources. Akomfrah references two major literary masterpieces, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’ epic poem Whale Nation (1988), itself a harrowing and inspiring work. These sources were galvanised in the genesis of this project by the recent tragic events unfolding across the Mediterranean Sea, as desperate refugees venture from the northern coast of the African continent to seek haven in Europe. These richly contrasting materials are all woven together into a compelling multi-faceted narrative, projected simultaneously across three screens and immersed within a boundlessly atmospheric eight-channel sound field. Akomfrah was also inspired by the autobiographical account of the former slave Olaudah Equiano. In 1789, Equiano published a widely influential autobiography – The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano – documenting the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Equiano had been kidnapped as a child from Nigeria, sold as a slave and later in life, as a ‘free’ man, became a political activist effectively working to abolish slavery with his autobiography widely translated internationally. The artist himself has described Vertigo Sea as a eulogy, commemorating lives lost at sea.

Akomfrah’s new work Auto Da Fé is a two-channel video installation that constructs a fictional narrative, exploring episodes of migration across four centuries. This award-winning work takes its title from the Portuguese version of the mediaeval Spanish phrase ‘auto de fé’ that literally translates as ‘act of faith’. This phrase describes the ritual of public penance by condemned heretics during the Spanish or Portuguese Inquisitions that often culminated in violent, ritualised public execution. In Auto Da Fé the artist weaves together different moments of ethnic and religious persecution throughout 400 years of history – from the plight of Sephardic Jews fleeing Brazil to resettle on the Caribbean island of Barbados in 1654, to the recent Isis-driven genocidal persecution of the Yazidis and Christian communities in war-torn Iraq. Placing current global refugee crises into a broader historical context, Auto Da Fé highlights the connections between religion, persecution and migration and serves as a stark reminder that the horrors associated with events like the Spanish Inquisition are not locked away in distant moments of our remote historical past.

‘Most of the ideas in Auto Da Fé were really about saying to people: 'You really have to consider the option that people are migrating literally to survive. They come here to be able to live, because there isn’t an alternative anywhere else.' And that seems to be an insight that has been lost.’ John Akomfrah.

In a world of increasing uncertainty, Akomfrah continues to make work that informs and inspires. We are informed of terrible acts of cruelty, and inspired to generate change through sharing his vision of the beauty of the world and the tragedy of our indifference to its destruction. Amidst the darkness of this uncertainty, Akomfrah reflects on the suffering, fear and intolerance that have endured within populations across the globe, virus-like, across the millennia, awaiting reactivation through cultures of fear, in spite of our greatest efforts to subdue and abolish them from existence. Our species’ appetite for control and fear of difference has been at the core of generations of suffering and the destruction of our natural environment throughout history. Yet we manage to believe in a better future and find ways to help one another to make a positive difference.

John Akomfrah OBE, is an internationally celebrated artist, writer and filmmaker born in Accra, Ghana in 1957 and based in London. As a migrant himself (he was four years old when his activist parents fled Ghana for Britain), Akomfrah’s art has long explored themes of migration and persecution. Akomfrah was a leading figure in Black British cinema in the 1980s, founding the influential Black Audio Film Collective in London in 1982. A former musician and photographer, then a director of Super8 films and the founder of several art-house cinemas in London, Akomfrah is responsible for an ample production of feature films, video slideshows, experimental films, creative documentaries and cinematographic installations for museums. A follower of the ‘Do It Yourself’ punk ethic, he realised projects that lie between essay and poetry, exploring the worlds of both fiction and non-fiction, and between cinema and art galleries. He made his debut in film directing the controversial documentary Handsworth Songs (1986), which explores the events surrounding the 1985 riots that were sparked by racial tension and unemployment in London and Birmingham. This critically acclaimed film won several international prizes and its multi-layered visual style became a recognisable motif of Akomfrah’s practice. The following Testament (1988) is the portrait of an African politician forced to exile after a coup, whereas Who Needs a Heart? (1991) and Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993) were inspired by the growing Black Power movement in Britain. Akomfrah participated in the Venice Film Festival three times: in 1988 with Speak Like a Child; in 2001 with Digitopia, a film on existential drifts caused by the rise of the digital age; and in 2010 with The Nine Muses, about the history of immigration in Britain after World War II filtered through Homer’s Odyssey.

Akomfrah’s most recent recognition was winning the UK’s largest prize for international contemporary art – the biannual Artes Mundi – awarded in January 2017 for his work Auto Da Fé.


Chris Malcolm
John Curtin Gallery