Watch Now: John Akomfrah in Conversation with Zoé Whitley
A conversation as part of the 2020 Frieze Talks Programme.
John Akomfrah (b. 1957) is a hugely respected artist and filmmaker, whose works are characterised by their investigations into memory, post- colonialism, temporality and aesthetics and often explores the experiences of migrant diasporas globally. Akomfrah was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, who he still collaborates with today. Their first film, Handsworth Songs (1986) explored the events surrounding the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a charged combination of archive footage, still photos and newsreel. The film won several international prizes and established a multi-layered visual style that has become a recognisable motif of Akomfrah’s practice. Other works include the three-screen installation The Unfinished Conversation (2012), a moving portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s life and work; Peripeteia (2012), an imagined drama visualising the lives of individuals included in two 16th century portraits by Albrecht Dürer and Mnemosyne (2010) which exposes the experience of migrants in the UK, questioning the notion of Britain as a promised land by revealing the realities of economic hardship and casual racism. In 2015, Akomfrah premiered his three-screen film installation Vertigo Sea (2015), which explores what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls ‘the sublime seas’. Fusing archival material, readings from classical sources and newly shot footage, Akomfrah’s piece focuses on the disorder and cruelty of the whaling industry and juxtaposes it with scenes of many generations of migrants making epic crossings of the ocean for a better life. In 2017, Akomfrah presented his largest film installation to date, Purple (2017), at the Barbican in London, co- commissioned by Bildmuseet Umeå, Sweden, TBA21—Academy, The Institute of Contemporary Art/ Boston, Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon and Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. The six-channel video installation addresses climate change, human communities and the wilderness. More recently, Akomfrah debuted Precarity (2017) at Prospect 4 New Orleans, following the life of forgotten New Orleans jazz singer Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden. On the occasion of his participation at the first Ghana Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, John Akomfrah presented Four Nocturnes (2019), a new three-channel piece that reflects on the complex intertwined relationship between humanity’s destruction of the natural world and our destruction of ourselves.
Dr. Zoé Whitley is the Director of London’s Chisenhale Gallery, prior to which she was Senior Curator at the Hayward Gallery and Curator of International Art at Tate Modern. Exhibitions to her credit include curating the British Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale and co-curating the acclaimed Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.
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