BY Vanessa Peterson in Profiles | 16 APR 24
Featured in
The Venice Issue

The Disenchanting World of John Akomfrah

We discuss the challenges of representing the UK at the Venice Biennale with the artist in his north London studio

BY Vanessa Peterson in Profiles | 16 APR 24

John Akomfrah is no stranger to the Venice Biennale, but this year’s appearance – his third in just under a decade – feels different, he tells me: weightier, with more pressure and expectation. Now tasked with representing the UK, he admits that it ‘feels more urgent and demanding’. With previous invitations – his work was shown as part of Okwui Enwezor’s ‘All The World’s Futures’ in 2015, which marked the first time a Black African curator was at the helm of the biennial, and four years later, when curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim included Akomfrah, alongside other Ghanaian artists, in the country’s first national pavilion, ‘Ghana Freedom’ – he accepted he was ‘a player in an ensemble, a drama in which your walk-on role only lasts a few minutes’.

On a rare sunny January afternoon, I visit Akomfrah in the airy studios of Smoking Dogs – a film production company he co-founded in 1997 with fellow former Black Audio Film Collective members Lina Gopaul and David Lawson – in the bustling, north London neighbourhood of Wood Green. Upon my arrival, it becomes clear that the artist and his production team are busy working to complete the film that will be shown at this year’s Venice Biennale. Despite the timing of my visit, however, his demeanour is warm and he peppers our conversation with hearty laughs and a sense of inquisitiveness: he is just as curious about me and my opinions as I am about him.

Portrait of John Akomfrah, 2024. Image commissioned for frieze. Photograph: Suzannah Pettigrew

Due to the timing of our interview, Akomfrah is subject to an embargo meaning that he can only reveal so much about what would be on view at the British pavilion. He does tells me that his film, Listening All Night to the Rain, draws on the work of 11th century Chinese poet Su Dongpo, whose writings convey his love for the natural world and the landscapes he navigated during his travels in exile, while meditating on the fleeting passage of time. It was also significantly informed by the physical structure of the British Pavilion, which he describes as reminiscent of an ‘ominous structure from a Stanley Kubrick film’, and the sonic challenges the building presents. ‘The space comes with a lengthy list of what are effectively injunctions that go into great detail about all the things you can’t do before telling you what you can do.’ Given these constraints, British Pavilion programmers have traditionally erred towards sculpture and painting: Steve McQueen’s Giardini (2009), which showcased an off-season biennial site eerily devoid of its usual throngs of visitors, was the first time curators opted for a film installation by a single artist.

For Akomfrah, the British Pavilion commission aligns with a hallmark of his own philosophical thinking, closely informed by Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1993): that the lingering ghosts of previous exhibiting artists, all of whom have left traces of their own commissions in the building’s nooks and crannies, collectively form a tapestry of British art. ‘It’s more than just an encounter with physical space,’ he tells me. ‘It’s an encounter with the ancestral spirits of the pavilion.’ The roll call of artists who have come before him include Gilbert & George, Sarah Lucas, J.M.W. Turner – a favourite of Akomfrah – and, most recently, Sonia Boyce. His various reflections on these many spectres result in a form of bricolage – a technique inherent in Akomfrah’s deft approach to interleaving archival film with newly shot footage.

Black Audio Film Collective and John Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs, 1986, film still. Courtesy: © Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

Representing the UK in 2024 could feel like an impossible task. How to successfully convey the nuances of a country whose people are widely defeatist, with a continuing disdain for anyone deemed to be Other, and whose political system has lurched to the right? Our conversation often broaches Akomfrah’s feelings of disenchantment following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016. This coexists with what he describes to me as a ‘deep, abiding love’ for the country he saw as a place of refuge when he moved to London as a child in 1966. His creeping sense of disenchantment came from growing to understand the complexities of emancipation: the freedom he thought he would gain on arrival didn’t entirely come to fruition. This, he believes, relates to the ways in which, as a culture, the UK has processed difference: these histories of race and gender, for instance, ‘are woven into the fabric of this place, and they dictate how you are going to be treated if you are seen to be different.’ His responsibility as he saw it, he tells me, was to make films which helped others to understand what it means to be considered an outsider in any context. Despite this, he also talks of what he describes as a ‘deep fidelity’ to ensuring he offers a nuanced, complex reading of British life from the perspective of someone who has migrated to the country.

Akomfrah was born in Ghana’s capital, Accra, in 1957 – a little less than two months after the country declared its independence from the UK. Both his parents were involved in activist organizations and independence movements during this period of political turmoil, which saw Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, overthrown in a coup and ultimately led to the untimely death of his father, heralding a move away from Ghana with his mother. Taking what Akomfrah describes to me as a ‘circuitous route’, they emigrated initially to the US before settling in the UK. In their London home, his family tried to reproduce their own version of Accra, filled with anecdotes and remembrances from their past, repeated and dissected through the theatre of conversation.

John Akomfrah, The Last Angel of History, 1995, film still. Courtesy: © Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

It’s a topic the filmmaker addressed in his 1988 film Testament, in which the lead character – a former politician-turned-journalist called Abena – returns to Ghana after 22 years of self-imposed exile in the UK. Trying to track down the filmmaker Werner Herzog, who is reportedly in town to film a documentary, Abena also finds herself contending with those she left behind, in an unravelling plot of loss and grief. When I first watched Testament, I saw it as an elegy to those Akomfrah termed ‘the vanquished’ in a conversation I had with the artist alongside artist Lyle Ashton Harris for Aperture in 2023: those who leave, whether by their own choice or by necessity.

At this stage in his career, it makes sense to me that Akomfrah uses words such as ‘responsibility’ when describing his ideas of artistic legacy. From his perspective, Black British artistic production looks very different now from when he first started to make films in the mid-1980s, against a backdrop of political turbulence, police violence, racial discrimination and tense labour relations. To rewatch Handsworth Songs (1986) now – Akomfrah’s highly acclaimed documentary chronicling the uprisings sparked by racist policing in Birmingham and London during the 1980s – at a time when those on the right of Britain’s political spectrum are demonizing migrants amidst rolling labour strikes, is to see our current moment reflected at us through the 1980s. As the film’s melancholic voice-over narrates: ‘There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.’ In 1985, the Handsworth area of Birmingham was contending with protests and a feeling of exclusion. Akomfrah, working in collaboration with Black Audio Film Collective, disrupted the overriding media narrative and offered Handsworth’s residents the opportunity to speak for themselves about their lives. Those interviewed in the film narrated their experiences of discrimination as a primary concern, alongside a lack of quality housing and decent employment prospects. The film juxtaposes vernacular photographs and archive footage of the Windrush generation – who arrived in the 1940s and ’50s, laden with hope and anticipation, sporting dapper suits and sharp haircuts – with an acute sense of how fear and suffering only serves to breed intolerance and vilification.

Rewatching Handsworth Songs as it approaches its 40th anniversary made me think of a quote by the poet Dionne Brand in her book A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging (2001): ‘One is born into history, one is not born in a void.’ Akomfrah tells me that, upon reviewing a segment of Handsworth Songs recently, he noted ‘the tone of elegy that underscored the project’, realizing he was also still ‘struck by its inherent melancholia’ and the sense of it being ‘a truly modernist project which says: “There is nothing new here.”’ Akomfrah rarely rewatches his films, he confides, noting with a wry smile: ‘You watch stuff that you’ve made and, inevitably, you see things that you could have done differently. I don’t like that feeling of subjecting work to critique from an older me.’

An older Akomfrah continues to mine the depths of human experience in its myriad forms, alongside our complex entanglement with the natural world. Multiple motifs recur throughout his films. Vertigo Sea (2015) and Four Nocturnes (2019), for instance, have a presiding concern with the ways in which humans can enact harm upon each other and the world around them through overconsumption, environmental pollution and the hunting and killing of animals such as whales and elephants. This interest takes an autobiographical slant in Purple (2017), in which thick plumes of smoke fill the sky while a voice-over narrates how toxic fumes from vehicles and factories turn into rain which damages crops and leads to polluted seas and waterways. As Akomfrah noted in a 2017 interview with The Guardian, living next to London’s Battersea Power Station as a child meant he grew up breathing toxic air every day.

We also encounter the ocean in various guises: from Vertigo Sea, which traced the journeys of migrants who died while making perilous crossings in search of a better life, to The Unfinished Conversation (2012), which documents the experiences of the Windrush generation, who traversed the Atlantic to help fill UK labour shortages following World War II. Another recurring motif in Akomfrah’s work is the rückenfigur – a figure viewed from behind as they look ahead, typified by Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) – which harks back to the 19th century era of exploration. The sonic is a key component as well, with dance, movement and song providing a means not only of forming an identity but a community, too. Mnemosyne (2010), for instance, includes African American spiritual hymns such as ‘Motherless Child’, performed by soprano Leontyne Price, and ‘Go Down Moses’, sung by Paul Robeson. By returning to these key thematics, Akomfrah enables his films to assume the elegiac effect he uses to describe Handsworth Songs: taken together, his oeuvre reads like a prolonged lament, interspersing the grief of past and current realities with brief glimpses of what could be.

John Akomfrah, Five Murmurations, 2021, film still. Courtesy: © Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

A voracious reader and scholar, Akomfrah has notably taken inspiration from various cultural figures, including the British critical theorist Stuart Hall, subject of his three-screen film The Unfinished Conversation, whose studies had a profound impact on how we decode the images we consume. Other films – including Vertigo Sea, Purple and Four Nocturnes – are laden with references and readings from writers who have reckoned with themes of power, obedience and migration, such as John Berger, John Milton and Shakespeare. Dotted across the studio are books that illustrate Akomfrah’s keen interest in the visual representation of the UK, such as Paul Gilroy’s Black Britain: A Photographic History (2007) and Daniel Meadows’s Now and Then: England 19702015 (2019) – both of which contain documentary images that span race, class and generations. It is evident that Britain, as both a country and a concept, continues to be a central preoccupation for the artist.

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask Akomfrah what changes he has observed over the course of his career. In some respects, he appears surprised at the way his work has been received by younger audiences: ‘When people come to take my photograph, I’m completely stunned.’ Akomfrah reminds me of events he attended in his youth, such as the First National Black Art Convention, held at Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1982. While attendees were few, those present included the likes of Boyce, Lubaina Himid and Claudette Johnson. Boyce was awarded the Golden Lion at the 2022 Venice Biennale, where she was the first Black woman to represent the UK. Himid won the Turner Prize in 2017, becoming the first Black woman and the oldest person to do so, while Johnson’s recent solo show at the Courtauld Institute of Art, her first London survey exhibition, marked a new career highlight. Nowadays, Akomfrah tells me, he no longer feels a sense of isolation; rather, making the kind of work he does, alongside his many peers, feels like a ‘crowded room at a fun party, where people are having a great time’. Despite the mournful minor chord struck in many of his works, his view on the meaning of art – and on how we find meaning in difficult times – is marked by a note of optimism because of the strength of community. ‘The loneliness and solitude that came with being a minority or a pariah-like figure in the 1980s has completely disappeared,’ he concludes. ‘It’s not just about whether Britain has changed, which is a question that people keep asking. It’s that what we wished for has happened.’

This article first appeared in frieze issue 242 with the headline ‘Profile: John Akomfrah’

Main Image: John Akomfrah, Purple, 2017, film still. Courtesy: © Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK.