John Akomfrah wins Artes Mundi 7 award.
Artes Mundi 2017 winner John Akomfrah’s award winning film Auto Da Re (2016) is on display along with the five other shortlisted artists at the National Museum Cardiff until 17 February 2017. Art Radar takes a look at the artist’s four-decade long practice.
I am absolutely touched by this and enormously grateful for the chance it offers to finally finish off something I have been planning for over a decade. Over the years, Artes Mundi has chosen some very brilliant artists for this award: all were important artists doing challenging and engaged work, and to join that group is a huge honour and responsibility.
Chosen from a shortlist of six artists that included Neïl Beloufa, Nástio Mosquito, Lamia Joreige, Bedwyr Williams and Amy Franceschini/Futurefarmers, Akomfrah’s two-screen film installation, Auto Da Fé (2016), ultimately resonated with the judges.
This year’s Judging Chair and Art Review Editor Oliver Basciano said the award was given to John Akomfrah
in recognition of both his newly-presented work Auto Da Fé and in appreciation of the artist’s ability to tell stories with historical depth, exploring social and political concerns through exquisite cinematic language.
Art Radar takes a look at the prize-winning work Auto Da Fé in the context of the filmmaker’s innovative practice that spans four decades.
John Akomfrah: forerunner in digital cinematography
John Akomfrah has been making seminal work for at least four decades. His early experiments in film and video with Black Audio Film Collective – a film and video collective he co-founded in the early 1980s – pushed him to the vanguard of the emerging Black British scene, a constellation of art, publishing, film, theatre, television, poetry and writing practices emerging in the 1980s in the United Kingdom that actively challenged the exclusion of racialised minorities from participating in public space and particularly cultural production.
As well as critiquing the exclusionary logic of the cultural sphere, many artists of this generation – including Isaac Julien and Pratibah Parmar – paid particular attention to the ways in which story-telling, framing, archive and representation are key factors in constructing alternative narratives that contest racism, homophobia and misogyny. The need to produce new frames for thinking and art-making combined with the lack of an “archive” of representations of minority cultural histories produced a fusionist approach across the scene, with many artists mixing critical theory, feminism, experimental film and television techniques in technologically and theoretically innovative ways.
The irreverent aesthetic and technique was unprecedented at the time, and can be appreciated in seminal works such as The Last Angel of History (1996) – a part science-fiction fable in which a time travelling data thief from 200 years in the future excavates the ruins of the present in search of the key to the future, and part interview-based documentary examining the inter-related development of funk music, science fiction and Afro-futurism. The work departs from Walter Benjamin’s text On the Concept of History (1940), which references the figure of “the angel of history” who is forced to witness the “rubble and destruction of the past” as the “wind of progress” pushes him into the future. The artist mixes critical theory with science fiction tropes of alien abduction in an exploration of metaphors for the Black diasporic experience of slavery, cultural alienation and exclusion.
Early works such as The Last Angel of History are also innovative in their use of digital technologies. In the film Akomfrah explores the chromatic and collage possibilities of digital video, in a manner that eerily prefigures, at a twenty year remove, the work of many young artist filmmakers today. The irreverent blending of literature, philosophy, histories of music and innovative experiments with digital film can be further seen in the recent work The Stuart Hall Project (2013), which details the life and work of British cultural studies founder Stuart Hall through the work of US Jazz musician Miles Davis. Akomfrah’s work has been key in influencing a number of artists in the early 2000s, notably the Otolith Group whose members Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar have been engaged in various curatorial endeavours aimed at distributing the work of Black Audio Film Collective to younger audiences.
Auto Da Fé: reframing “migration”
2017 award-winning film Auto Da Fé brings together eight interconnected stories of mass migration, which have taken place during the past 400 years beginning with the little known 1654 fleeing of Sephardic Jews from Catholic Brazil to Barbados. Auto Da Fé explores more examples of displacement throughout history, including cases from Hombori in Mali and Mosul in Iraq. Auto Da Fé is one of a series of John Akomfrah’s film works that attempts to reframe current discussions surrounding displacement, travel and migration. In 2013’s The Seven Muses, Akomfrah reframes BBC archival footage of migrants arriving to Britain in the 1940s by setting the found images to a soundtrack composed of quotes extracted from the literary canon. Works such as Ulysses, Odysseus and Paradise Lost are used to intervene in and edit the dominant media narratives of migration in the 20th and 21st century.
The film is structured as a period drama, which allows an exploration of the effects of displacement in both its familial and historical dimensions. The film looks at the conditions of refugeeship and how people’s lives have been impacted and shaped by oppressive power structures that systematically produce economic hardship and religious persecution. Auto Da Fé makes a significant contribution to the current debates on migration by widening the historical and theoretical frame throughout which displacement is understood, offering a timeline that spans four hundred years allowing early examples of persecution to be connected to current cases.
Artes Mundi Director and jury member Karen Mackinnon said of John Akomfrah’s work:
The Artes Mundi 7 Prize was awarded for Akomfrah’s presentation of Auto Da Fé and for a substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution. To speak of these things in this particular moment feels more important than ever.
- ‘Vertigo Sea’: Ghanaian-British filmmaker John Akomfrah – interview – July 2016 – 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
- “Material Effects” at Broad Museum: West African artists examine the socio-political lives of objects – in pictures – January 2016 – the exhibition reflects on the ways in which objects circulate the world and the importance of their histories and origins
- Videonale in Lagos spotlights African video art – February 2016 – Videonale in Lagos supports local up-and-coming talent in the video art scene of Nigeria
- Confronting the archive, reconstructing history: Yto Barrada’s “Faux Guide” at Carré d’Art in Nîmes – January 2016 – French-born Moroccan artist Yto Barrada’s investigation into identity and cultural roots reveals a fascination with her home country’s historical objects
- 5 highlights from the 2015 Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography – November 2015 – after a four-year hiatus, Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography is back and stronger than ever
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on British contemporary art