Anxious Migrations: John Akomfrah’s Video Installations Plumb the Chaos of History — And Now


In The Stuart Hall Project (2013), John Akomfrah’s lyrical documentary tribute to the late, influential
Jamaican-British sociology scholar, Hall is heard to remark: “Every new configuration contains masses of the old.” He was referring to the way history repeats itself — uncannily, inevitably — yet retains the power to surprise us anew. But his words were equally relevant to the diverse output of that film’s director, the Ghanaian-born, East London–based Akomfrah.

Since becoming a founding member of Britain’s trailblazing Black Audio Film Collective in 1982, Akomfrah has operated across film, television, and galleries, often in collaboration with former BAFC members (the group disbanded in 1998). His typically enigmatic, bricolage-driven work — including luminous post-colonial essay film The Nine Muses (2010) and the installation Vertigo Sea (2015) — has drawn repeatedly upon themes of international migration, loss, and the slipperiness of national and personal memory.

Such ideas are at the fore in Akomfrah’s first major U.S. solo show, taking place at Chelsea’s recently opened Lisson Gallery, a roomy space in the shadow of the High Line. A sense of anxiety characterizes the exhibition’s two arresting multichannel video installations. In the surreal, elliptical The Airport, which is presented across three wide screens, an astronaut touches down in a contemporary Athens stricken by financial crisis. Making a haunted, disused airport — a creepy tonal cousin of The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel — his base, the astronaut bears silent witness to the spectral maneuvers of fictional figures: an elderly man reflecting on his past, forlorn travelers, and, in a humorous nod to 2001, a marauding gorilla.

Akomfrah makes thoughtful use of sound design, editing, and multiple
camera angles across the three discrete panels to collapse time and space. Though chronological leaps are never
obvious or telegraphed, the film seems
to elegantly traverse some hundred years of Greek history.

The second piece, Auto da Fé, is a stately diptych focusing on migration through the lens of religious persecution. Thanks to the current crisis in Europe, it also feels timely. Styled like a lavish period drama, it re-creates a series of historical migrations over the past four hundred years, starting with the scantly reported fleeing of Sephardic Jews from Catholic Brazil to Barbados in 1654 and ending with contemporary exoduses from Mali and Iraq. Images of the sea — whirling, lapping, ravenous — are a constant, terrifying presence.

Of his subject choice in Auto da Fé, Akomfrah explains: “I think there’s a way in which one can see these migrations as a grand regime running alongside the slightly more recognizable ones of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Vasco da Gamas: the flights which are utterly sanctioned, completely safe, lionized.” He also suggests an autobiographical dimension to the piece: “My family arrived in England [from Ghana] as political refugees in 1966 thinking, ‘Where are we going? How are we going to get there? What’s going to happen to us?’ I was born with that kind of anxiety as part of the DNA — when you know that life is precarious, on the edge, it could just go. When you watch your parents live that, it becomes something that you pick up. You know how soul-destroying it is.”

This fear of imminent danger pulses like electricity through both of these
immersive, compelling films, as does the powerful sense of Akomfrah’s continuing to work in dialogue with his own artistic and personal history. Moreover, in light
of Britain’s epochal decision to leave the European Union, and the grave geopolitical ructions that will no doubt ensue, these measured portraits of national division and forced flight have assumed an even more ominous relevance.

John Akomfrah

Through August 12

Lisson Gallery