‘Vertigo Sea’: Ghanaian-British filmmaker John Akomfrah – interview

Renowned Ghanaian-British filmmaker speaks with Art Radar on his career, his work and what he is looking forward to next against the backdrop of the UK debut of his work Vertigo Sea.

Art Radar speaks with John Akomfrah to learn about how he got his start as a filmmaker, the power of biennials, what he is currently working on and what filmmakers he follows.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’, 2015. © Smoking Dogs Films. Image courtesy Lisson Gallery.

John Akomfrah (b. 1957, Accra) is one of Britain’s most talented and respected filmmakers. With a reputation that has pushed well beyond the confines of his hometown, London, Akomfrah has most recently participated in the 56th Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor where his 2015 film Vertigo Sea made its international debut. At the top of this year, Vertigo Sea made its UK debut at Arnolfini in Bristol where it will be on display until 10 April. Akomfrah’s work has exhibited widely in museums, biennials and film festivals in Asia, Europe and North America.

Art Radar spoke with the Ghanaian-British filmmaker to find out more about his practice and his thoughts on art and film.

Could you describe the circumstances under which the Black Audio Film collective was created? 

I suppose there are three things one has to say about the conditions or the existence of the collective. One has really to do with questions of friendship. All of the members, all of the people who went on to become members of the collective, all of us were either friends, or saw the setting up of the collective as a way of developing friendships. Now that doesn’t sound like a huge amount but in 1980s Britain that was a big ask because of the fact that we were in a place where basically all of us were coming from different walks of life and had got used to this notion that we may be the first – you know – the first black artists. So there was a sense of shock when you realise that actually there may be not that many, but one or two of you were interested in cultural production and wanted to get together. So the idea of the collective was in a way about trying to deepen what felt immediately like axels and all bonds of affinity.

The second is obviously the context because you’re talking about us being kids of the 1970s really, people who grew up in this country in the 1970s, which made us the first generation – the first post migrant generation; the first group of young people of colour especially people of African descent whose parents had come over in the 1950s and 1960s and we were en masse the first sort of demographic, post-war diasporic group of young people born and raised in England. And that was an especially important point for us because you sensed that there was a need for us to come into voice to find forms by which we might visualise, represent and acquire discourses of self-affirmation. And all of those seemed best done in a collegiate, convivial collective space.

The third, I think, has to do with the question of cultural production itself. I mean, all of us were interested in that diverse range that make up cultural production: fine arts, cinema, television, et cetera. We were all either profoundly keen to be involved in those spaces or were training, quote unquote, to be absorbed by those spaces and I think all of us were also aware that there was a profound absence of predecessors in this space. Like there was just not that many people of colour at all, nevermind African diaspora people in those spaces. So part of the impetus for wanting to create this thing was to try and use a kind of unity strength type approach to force our way into these spaces, which were actively working to keep you out. These were not welcoming spaces so you realised that you needed rhetorical, political and cultural strategies that privileged what you were first and foremost, and that privileging of black voices or black representation was something that we felt we had to use as a banner for our work because otherwise we were going to disappear essentially.

And that cluster of concerns, historical circumstance, probably explains more how we came together. I mean, I think if you speak to everybody they’ll have their own different reasons. People will probably tell you, “I was into cinema and I wanted to make black films”, “I read about the Black Arts Movement in the States and I wanted to set something like that up”. So each person would come to it existentially with their own set demands that they were making of themselves but those were the sort of broad general reasons I suspect we found it useful to come together.

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, Installation view, 2016. Photo © Stuart Whipps, courtesy of Arnolfini.

John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’, 2015, installation view. Photo: © Stuart Whipps. Image courtesy Arnolfini.

What were some of the initial projects the Collective worked on?

I mean it’s interesting, we became known very quickly for making time based works, films. But actually for the first three years between 1982 and, I’d say, 1985, we were pretty much more in the art world proper – the art world of the 1970s and 1980s, which is not the same post YBA (Young British Artists) that came into being in the nineties. So we were making quite a lot of installation based work. We were working a lot on forms and with equipment that we could afford: take slides, photo texts, performative pieces. We did quite a few performances of, by then, forgotten black classics: Aimé Cesaire’s “Return to My Native Land” was one of the performances we did; sonic work mainly for underground magazines; the occasional music video, you know just a range. But very little of it saw itself as belonging and immediately to either of the three broad worlds that we ended up being in and these being the gallery world and the world of the cinema and on television. That sort of came pretty much from 1986 onwards and with the first film that we did called Handsworth Songs that pretty much propelled the practice very, very violently towards narrative work and time based practice: making films and video, using film and video.

So Wandsworth Songs was this sort of south side of Birmingham and Handsworth was where the people of colour were basically congregated for two or three decades. It had a major riot, quote unquote, in the 1980s and the film Handsworth Songs uses that riot as the sort of springboard, if you like, to then look at questions of migrant memory and whatever it might be made of.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’, 2015. © Smoking Dogs Films. Image courtesy Lisson Gallery.

The way you work with the archive, the historical record, particularly looking at the “Stuart Hall Project”, is intriguing. Many artists when they look at a historical archive as a source of inspiration, or point of departure for their work, often have a subversive intent, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. When you consult these historical works, this archive so to speak, is your intent being subversive? If so, could you build on that? If not, what specifically is your intent in using those as a point of departure for your creation?

I’m interested in the fossils, fragments, debris from the past for two reasons: one, the interest is to do with the question of context. These are contested legacies in which the fragment in question has usually been used to speak a certain absolutist truth. “This is England”, for instance, “and England was always white”. Or “This is England and England is mono-cultural” or “This is England and it was a great power, which civilised savages.” You’re aware that when you enter into the debate with the historical record there are, in other words, a set of contested narratives that you’re confronted by. So part of the project is simply to take seriously this question of context, to see in what ways fragments from the past can be commandeered to speak more ambivalently about the present and about how the present became if you like.

But there’s a sort of, for me, a more pressing, personal question because I think generally when you are a figure of a diaspora what that says is that you are in a space in which very few of the monuments that write that place into being acknowledge your presence. There’s no Trafalgar Square for people of colour in this country. The historic fragment in its archival variety becomes paradoxically one’s inheritance, one’s heritage. It’s one of the few spaces where you find things that attest to your presence. So if you look at 17th century England generally the things that attest to there being an African presence in this country at the time will be books or paintings or, very rarely, buildings or towns. So it becomes imperative for the artist, or for the figure who enters into the archive to be aware of the Janus faced nature of the archival past, the residues of the archival past, because they both speak an official memory.

Shakespeare is the English language’s greatest poet but Shakespeare is also, in the Tempest, one of the few texts from that period that hints at this sense that what we understand to be England may well have been forged by an encounter with the Caribbean. Both are important, in a way, to the practice. It’s not that I want to suggest that Shakespeare is just a great white male and he isn’t any good for me, or that he needs to be replaced by something I like. I think he’s that too but there’s other stuff there that one could work with.

So that is generally my interest in the archive. It’s about looking, using it to look at spaces or contexts, using it to look at ways in which one might reinsert a black subject into a narrative in which he or she is assumed to be absent from. And those come with ethical implications. It’s like when you try to put people in something – nations, groups, identities – the question of why you do it is important. And those ethical questions are as important for me as the aesthetic ones.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’, 2015. © Smoking Dogs Films. Image courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Vertigo Sea has now debuted in the UK but it was also a part of the most recent Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor. It would seem that there is a certain set of feelings and understandings that one has when one’s work is in one of the most obvious, biggest markers of the art world, which is the Venice Biennale. Now that the Biennale has been over for approximately four months, how are you feeling personally about the work as it moves along this trajectory? Have you seen the responses to it change as it has left the ecosphere of the Biennale and now moved into the UK?

It never ceases to amaze me just the power and the reach these huge biennials have. They are essentially go-to ecosystems or ecospheres. Everybody across the planet who feels they want to intervene in curating or collecting, or just about everybody makes it to these huge things and so the minute a work transitions into that space, it just flies off. Its aided by the slip stream of that to fly off in directions that are completely not anticipated by you. I just wouldn’t have believed that I would have received so many letters and emails and requests from one space because I’ve been in biennials but this was the most prominent because usually the work has been shown or in side bars as films and so on. This was the first time that the work had appeared in one of the premier European biennials.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The change is, obviously, that once you move from that biosphere, things become slightly more local. Responses to it are more local so at the moment the Vertigo Sea is installed in Denmark, it was in Sweden just before that and so you go and you speak to people there and there’s always a slightly different take on a place and it makes you realise what biennials do. They centralise opinion but once the works leave that central terminus, the local flavourings of that centring become more apparent. You suddenly become aware that one of the reasons why people in Denmark might be interested in it is because they have this whaling past. Or the reason that an African curator might want to put it on has to do with what we’re saying in it about Algerian history. Or the Vietnamese curator who wants it, wants it because of the take on the boat people from the 1970s.

The work itself suggests there might be a general language we speak and that general language takes place in the collegiate atmosphere of the biennial. Once it leaves there it starts to then get unpicked and people hone in on the aspects of it that best interest them, which is what would make them either find the money or the energy or the resources to mount it in their own place. That’s the main difference that I’ve noticed. If I’m in Denmark we speak much more about whaling. When I speak to American curators, we speak much, much more about Moby Dick. In France, it’s the relationship with Algerial and the colonial past. Each space a specific question that they want to raise to the general tone of the work, and that’s been interesting.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’, 2015. © Smoking Dogs Films. Image courtesy Lisson Gallery.

There’s a portion of a statement you made in an interview published on the British Film Institute site last summer, in reference to television and cinema. There was a comment that you made at the end that says, “There’s not much trust in the viewer right now. One of the reasons it would be great to be alive in fifty years time is to be able to look back and see what the meaning of the archive is and what is in it. I hope someone gets to do that.” What did you mean by that?

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s on a particular kind of diet of moving image work: independent film, art film, to a certain extent new Hollywood cinemas, the kind made by Monte Hellmann and Martin Scorcese, that sort of work. The organising motif running through all of that work is the sense that you could come to works with an intelligence, which would not be insulted by the work. It wouldn’t assume you were an idiot and talk down to you and it wouldn’t try and treat you as part of a mass because it felt that you had something to gain personally from that encounter. And I think that sense, that you were first and foremost a reader, a subject or a citizen is very different from the overwhelmingly monetised idea of you as a consumer. The sense of you as a consumer presupposes that you be served a certain kind of diet as part of a mass, part of a huge sway of people and that’s a major difference for me.

So when I say there’s not much trust in the viewer it’s not so much that anyone is sitting anywhere thinking that people shouldn’t be trusted or that they’re necessarily idiots, but I think most of the means by which we come to experience and observe narratives now, whether they’re television or the cinema, does work with the assumption that people are more consumers than citizens or subjects. And I, there’s nothing I can do about that, that’s just the moment we happen to be in. But I don’t think it’s the only way in which one could make stuff or that one would treat dialogue between screen and subject. I think there are other approaches and I’m part of one of those other approaches and I think that’s probably what I am trying to get at. Moving image work doesn’t all have to be structured like a movie, a present day movie with these slightly predictable scenarios.

I mean that’s part of the pleasure of watching movies, recognition of genre and so on but I’m interested in taking people in other sorts of journeys, maybe not quite as predictable.

John Akomfrah, Tropikos, Installation view, 2016. Photo © Stuart Whipps, courtesy of Arnolfini.

John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’, 2016, installation view. Photo: © Stuart Whipps. Image courtesy Arnolfini.

Speaking of these other kinds of journeys, if you’re willing to speak of it, what are you working on now that you have Tropikos and Vertigo out there?

Part of what I’m trying to do, or what I try to do in most of the work, is to connect recurring obsessions of mine having to do with the African past or questions of memory or the archive. So that’s ongoing and unfinished and something will for sure come out of it. Right now I’m trying very hard not to think of one because I need to get a break. I need to really stop for a bit. So lot’s of things on the table at the moment, lots of requests, for commissions and other estimates that I’ll probably take the next month off and come back at this fresh. It’s really important to do that because otherwise the works just segue one to the other and you think you’re doing something different but actually just continuing the last one because you haven’t really declared the cessation of hostilities with it or signed the divorce papers or whatever metaphor for closure one wants to use, it hasn’t happened. So it’s really important to manage that closure and say to a work, “it’s really been nice knowing you but I’ve got to go.” And sometimes the works themselves tell you that. They just say, “Ok John, you’re done now. You can go. I’m ok. I can look after myself now.”

So I’m slowly just sort of trying to get those works out of my system. All the works involve partnerships of different forms or another. People have given you things, interviews you’ve had with people, you research, loads of stuff, it’s a bit like an iceberg. They’re the works that tip and there’s this huge submerged tip of engagements with people and records and institutions, just managing to slowly just say sayonara to all of those, takes awhile. So I am almost at the end of it now, returned the favours the compliments the photographs, all of that and I’m just going to take it easy for a month and then see where to go.

John Akomfrah Vertigo Sea © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’, 2015. © Smoking Dogs Films. Image courtesy Lisson Gallery.

Who are you watching in terms of filmmakers? What do you think is being done really well aesthetically and conceptually? Who are really excited by who is working in the film genre?

It’s so interesting that question because increasingly I’m looking at, relooking at people who I had either studied or enjoyed being with when I was younger, and going back quite far actually to the work of the German director Murnau from the twenties and thirties. I’m looking a lot at the moment at the early cinema, the silent classics, a hell of a lot. But there are things in the present that also fascinate me enormously. The man who won for, I think, the third time the cinematography Oscar, Emmanuel Lubezki, “The Revenant”. I love his work. Pretty much anything that he touches I would watch because there’s always something of interest and value.

You know it’s a great time for time-based work in the gallery world as well. There’s a lot of people doing really, really interesting work, just too many to mention. Broadly those areas: early cinema especially the silent period is a source of interest at the moment. The edges of mainstream especially the work being done by people who are interested in exploring images digitally. I’m very keen on that. And multi-channel pieces by people like Isaac Julien in the gallery world is interesting for me. Just a range. My taste for moving image work has always been catholic, diverse and I will continue to do that moving into spaces finding things that feel interesting regardless of whether it’s supposed to be “for me” or not. Like I know an artist is not supposed to be watching mainstream films and enjoying them but there’s quite a lot that I enjoy. Just that range. They’re way too many to mention.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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Related Topics: Ghanaian artists, historical artvideo, museum show, film

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