• Archie Gibbs

Artist Spotlight: John Akomfrah

Updated: Jun 22

Akomfrah is an artist whose name is often brought up in discussions of Black film makers detailing issues race and identity in film, Its not that this doesn't reflect part of his work, it's just his work is anything but categorizable. First of all he is a multidisciplinary within the medium – documentary, archival, imagined drama and much more in a series of channel # installation strategies. Too often Black artists are pigeon-holed into subsectors of art world stratification – unable to be presented as simply an Artist. He highlights but does not parochially fixate on ideas of post-colonialism or diaspora, with his work often illuminating elements and phenomena of memory, journey, changing of climates and environments and community.


The films totally grip and engross the viewer. Constantly shifting between contrasts of narratives and perspectives, voices and faces, melodies and cacophonies. Akomfrah’s work is truly symphonic: poesie, pathos and satire. The films are intensely meaningful and act as true mobilisers for ones consideration of positionality and implication within the deep seeded racism and injustice prevalent both back then and still to this day. Apropos for now (not a moment) and for always – the work is timeless and seminal. While certainly not obscure - ergo his Royal Academician (RA) election in 2019 and CBE in 2017 - his films are still not widespread seen. They eclipse any ‘arty farty’ assumptions one may have with artists films, they are undoubtedly relevant in all our lives, art lover or not.


Handsworth Songs (1986)


Starting with the first work made alongside/with the influential ‘Black Audio Film Collective’ (a group of Black British artists working in video and audio mediums in the 1980s and 1990s), Handsworth Songs garnered widespread art world recognition and subsequent awards. The hour-long film collages a variety of media sources and audio tracks relating to and positioning the ‘Handsworth Riots’* of 1985 in the town in the West Midlands. Newsreel footage, local interviews, dub reggae songs and eerie orchestral compositions harmonised. The rebellions in 1985 took place across the country as a response to an incessant oppression of Black people** in quotidian life. A flagrant imbalance in the penal judiciary system, from the Police to the Prisons, targeting and persecuting the Black community was pushed to its breaking peace point in cities like Tottenham and Birmingham.

Akomfrah punctuates footage of the rebellion and police brutality with footage of community leaders expressing their exhaustion with an infectious inaccountability in figures of authority. “What about the authority who never accept that the people living in Handsworth have some rights upon them”. This sentiment is echoed so often in matters of police brutality and sheer authoritarianism. The sequence of playground school children footage accompanied by Trevor Mathison’s uncanny score is particularly distinct, a wariness underscoring a seemingly innocent scene elucidating on the idea of unconscious bias and prejudice ingrained from very young. The work is just incredible, I simply cannot recommend it enough. Akomfrah illustrates a resilience in a community plagued by police meddling, subjecting and attacking.


John Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs, 1986. Film Still

Handsworth Songs is available for a short period of time at no cost on the Lisson Gallery’s Vimeo (the gallery which represents Akomfrah). https://vimeo.com/427006204


*the term rebellion is far more favoured in contexts of oppressed peoples resisting oppression in the only way they are able to make a difference – ‘riotising’ is a strategy of the oppressive class to render an insurgent image in the media – see any resistance following great injustices against Black people in America and the UK (LA ‘Riots’, Watts ‘Riots’, London ‘Riots’ etc.)


**The term Black in the context of the 1980s in Britain is one of political resisting identity as opposed to one of ethnic stratification. Black meant power in numbers and a shared oppressor and authoritarian force, whether it be shared by diasporic peoples from South Asia, Caribbean or Africa.

Stuart Hall Project (2013)


Documenting the career of the prominent cultural theorist Stuart Hall, Akomfrah directed and wrote an eloquent account of an individual who was a beacon of inspiration and progress for negations of static identity, critical thought on colonialism in Britain and all round enhancement of the Left’s racial passivity. Hall is a writer everyone should be reading and someone that really ought to be emphasised on the syllabi of British Schools (and the rest for that matter). His writing is something that really made me reconsider the construction of identity and race, something which is not innate/natural/biological as much as your antiquated biology teacher wants to tell you.


The construct of ‘Blackness’ as Other is something founded on colonial soil – this is not an ‘indigenous/native/natural’ state. Referring to an individual as Black comes from White voices and it is simply an Othering, demobilising tool – all examples of theory and ideas I first encountered in Hall’s texts. The distinctly Akomfrahan assemblage of archival footage of a range of subjects consistently builds and adds meaning to preconceived notions of what an immigrant experience is or how the diasporic experience unfolds. This can be explained in a term coined by the Artist. Affective Proximity, the way a compilation of various materials and sources can be compiled and fraught at once. With a Miles Davis sonic maturation spanning the film’s epoch, Akomfrah’s layering and compiling of perspectives make this so much more than a documentary. Experiential yet not running away with narrative, the Stuart Hall Project is truly fitting for such an important figure.

John Akomfrah, Stuart Hall Project, 2013. Film Still [1:09:15]

Watch 'Stuart Hall Project' on vimeo for free: https://vimeo.com/205226601


Other notable mentions: the recent(ish) film that won him the Artes Mundi prize, Purple (2017), his early masterpiece Signs of Empire (1983) and Vertigo Sea (2015).


Watch a symposium with John Akomfrah with the Lisson Gallery recorded on 18/6/2020 - https://www.lissongallery.com/studio/john-akomfrah-tina-campt-saidiya-hartman

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