At the New Museum, the Empire Strikes Back

John Akomfrah’s postcolonial blues


At the age of five, John Akomfrah nearly drowned at a beach in Accra, Ghana, where the Atlantic Ocean laps the coast in treacherous tides. The experience bred a healthy respect for the sea. “It almost claimed me, you know,” Akomfrah said when I met him at the New Museum, which hosts this season a major exhibition of his film-based art. “But for the bravery of two fishermen, I wouldn’t be here. So I understand its force.”

Akomfrah was born in Ghana in 1957, the same year that country gained its independence from Britain. But he grew up in London, where his family moved when he was still young; he studied film in Portsmouth, and made his career as an artist in the United Kingdom. His family belonged to that swelling wave of immigrants to Britain from its former colonies who came to supply industrial labor, nursing, and social services, and — though this part would require struggle to get recognized — the feedstock ideas and experiences of a new cultural politics.

Today, Akomfrah is a fundamental figure of that art and politics, as it has evolved from the battle years of Thatcherism to the stitching together — not always easy — of humanist and anti-racist culture work across the Atlantic, putting theories and aesthetics to the test of local particularities. And to the overwhelming global present moment, with its money lust, race panic, and pyromaniacally inflamed tribalisms careening against the backdrop of digital saturation and imminent environmental doom.

Akomfrah’s body of work includes some forty extended pieces of “lens-based” art: Among these are some features and documentaries, but the bulk are in a personal language of art film that blends original shooting, archival footage, photographic stills, interstitial text, and music in multi-channel composites that unfold like symphonic collages. It all amounts to as solid an oeuvre as exists to chart how our “western” and/or “multicultural” societies got to where we are, and offer clues about a way further.

But few are those who have seen it all, beyond the artist and his longtime collaborators, the producers David Lawson and Lina Gopaul. These are museum works, mostly shown in exhibitions and screenings, almost none for sale (let alone streaming). They are long, relative to most film and video-based art, often stretching half an hour or twice that. A complete retrospective would be an unwieldy thing.

This season, the New Museum has chosen a different approach — one that works elegantly. It has devoted its entire second floor to Akomfrah’s work, but made a tight selection of four film pieces, each of which shows in a generous space, like its own movie theater. The largest room goes to Vertigo Sea, Akomfrah’s lavish, unabashedly emotional ode to the oceans, to marine creatures, and to the humans who have journeyed at great peril across waters, of their own volition or otherwise, and those who ended at the bottom of the sea. First screened in the 2015 Venice Biennale, and now in its New York premiere, it unfolds on three channels side-by-side across the wide wall.

Rounding out the multiplex are smaller rooms that show Transfigured Night (2013), a less-known two-channel work that meditates on the ambitions and failings of postcolonial states; The Unfinished Conversation (2012), an intimate yet socially capacious three-channel work that tracks the life of the late British-Jamaican scholar and activist Stuart Hall; and, jumping back to the beginning, Signs of Empire (1983), by the Black Audio Film Collective, which Akomfrah and six other Portsmouth Polytechnic students formed in search of a politically and artistically autonomous voice.

The film was made of an ingenious montage of slides from multiple projectors beamed together — a choice dictated by aesthetic and penury, as they could not afford film — fading together sequences of archival images, along with text, radio tape, and original music. It unpacked the tropes of imperialism — the explorers, civilizers, natives. The juxtapositions and repetitions brought out the psychodynamic aspects of colonialism: the delusions, the venality, the anxiety.

The whole exhibition, which the New Museum has built out in a way that nearly eliminates any room-to-room audio bleed, makes a rich experience, worth devoting about three hours to (the works range between roughly twenty to 45 minutes each). It amounts, at this moment in social discourse, to a kind of invigorating cleanse. Akomfrah’s method is creatively satisfying, while his subject matter and the way he applies materials and techniques are profoundly humane. The work is more romantic than didactic; attentive to the idea that a vision of society is as provisional as it is necessary.

I met Akomfrah in late June, soon after the exhibition opened. He was juggling obligations before his flight to London and was apologetic about the short window he had for the interview. A youthful 61, Akomfrah is affable and funny; he speaks at once carefully and casually, nice long sentences that touch on theory and literature, but more like an investigator than an authority.

This querying, humble mode echoes the humanistic thinking of Hall, a mentor whom Akomfrah first sought out in 1981 while making a film about the Handsworth riots in Birmingham. Hall had arrived from Jamaica to study in Britain in the 1950s, and went on to become a founder of the New Left Review and a progenitor of the field of cultural studies. He was instrumental in expanding British progressive thinking beyond a hide-bound Marxism, in ways that accounted for race and ethnicity, as well as media and representation, without losing sight of economic struggle.

Hall once defined identity as “the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.” It follows not only that knowing ourselves requires thinking about the past, but also, since the present is constantly accruing, that we can reliably self-define only in the unstable now, while our sense of becoming is provisional.

When we met, Akomfrah was still taking in the particular juxtaposition that the New Museum assembled. “The weird thing in making long-form pieces that in a way feel like they sit somewhere between the gallery and the cinema, is that when you conceive them, they are — in potential — isolated pieces,” he said. “I never thought that The Unfinished Conversation and Vertigo Sea would play together. It never entered my head that someone would go, ‘OK, let me survey what you’ve been doing in the past decade.’ It seems just daunting enough to make them.”

Over the years, Akomfrah has been able to access resources he could not imagine as a scrappy oppositional artist in the Thatcher era. The BBC’s nature film production unit collaborated on Vertigo Sea, affording Akomfrah the use of spectacular ocean footage — schools of fishes, marine mammals, scenes from the Arctic, and the like. From these and other sources, he weaves into the work narratives that surge and mingle like currents. There is whale-hunting, which supplies some of the toughest scenes. There is sea travel and migration — the refugee crisis is heavily evoked, but in visually indirect ways (no migrant porn of overcrowded capsizing rafts), and through sampled news narrations. There is ecological depletion, the melting ice caps, the inexorable waters rising. There is also pure beauty: fish in shimmery dance, frothy wave caps out to infinity.

It makes for a kind of heavily augmented, highly problematized take on the nature film. “I love nature films, natural history films,” Akomfrah told me. “I watch them religiously. But at some point you are struck with the question of what keeps that natural history at bay and offstage, which is our complicity in the drama of our own making. Lions eat zebras, but we on the whole don’t spend time talking about how we kill lions.”

What he has reached, from his starting point addressing immigrant and working-class life in industrial England and struggles for dignity amid the rise of neoliberalism, is not so much an abrupt turn to environmentalism as it is an integration of fates. Understanding our threats to nature should help us understand how we threaten each other, and ourselves.

“The approach is to involve a broad range of subject positions, human and non-human,” Akomfrah said. “That’s a very important point for me. Ethically, part of the reason I have to do what I have to do is, once you’ve accepted the implications, that the theater of being is a stage where humans have held pretty much all the space, it becomes incumbent to find ways in which discreet subject positions can have conversations.”

“It is as important to me that you care about the fate of the enslaved African, thrown overboard, as you do about the sperm whales that are harpooned to death in the most gruesome fashion, essentially drowning in the sea.” These things are not the same, of course; different audiences might come in with different priorities, but that isn’t the point. “There may be hierarchies — but not ones that I’m insisting are important for perception.”

Woven into Vertigo Sea, per Akomfrah’s habit, are original passages he shot, plus archival texts in written and spoken form. Short readings from Moby-Dick and To the Lighthouse appear, as do old drawings. Akomfrah shot some parts in a chilly-looking waterfront setting that turns out to be the Scottish Hebrides. Some of the archival art shows a distinguished Black man in eighteenth-century garb; in the Hebrides sections, we see a lone actor, looking out to the water. These are references to the remarkable historical figure Olaudah Equiano, the enslaved Igbo man who bought his freedom and became an abolitionist in England. But Akomfrah also evokes a migrant archetype that could be any African currently crossing the Mediterranean — or the artist himself.

“I’m exactly the figure who, if they came now, might be separated from their parents,” Akomfrah said, now alluding to the harsh practices in effect on the U.S. border. “Like most people who migrate, my parents did it for a reason; and the reasons, it seems to me, are always utopian. No one leaves to go anywhere with the hope of causing trouble or being a burden.”

While Vertigo Sea is the centerpiece, and Signs of Empire the foundation, the show is worth absorbing in full for the connections it sparks. Transfigured Night builds off newsreels of visits by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president of independent Côte d’Ivoire, and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first prime minister of Nigeria, to John F. Kennedy in the White House. There is pomp, parades, and a palpable sense of pride in the new leaders and solicitousness from their American hosts. Akomfrah then uses past and present vistas of the Lincoln Memorial and shots of individuals in lonely settings — a room high up in a glass-and-steel downtown, for instance — to offer a meditation on hopes and alienation that is ambiguous but emotionally charged.

The Unfinished Conversation, another three-channel work, functions as an art piece but also a biographical sketch of Hall’s life, augmented by generous archival material — Hall gave Akomfrah broad access — and audio of Hall speaking. (Akomfrah also made a television documentary about the thinker, The Stuart Hall Project.) The images, from the Jamaica of Hall’s childhood memories and adult visits to the hulking factories and gray northern English towns that he visited as a young activist, present less a theory than an ethos.

Akomfrah derives his own method from Hall’s teachings, which he sees as healthy for any period, and certainly today’s atmosphere of great flux and political tensions. “He was always in this space of, ‘I worry about the moment,’ ” Akomfrah says. “His value still lies in that ability to say to people: Think about the new times you’re living in. Think about how the baggage of critical reflection that you’ve inherited from the past can be applied to that. And when new times and a theory don’t fit, rethink the theory.”

John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire
New Museum
235 Bowery

Through September 2