The Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid presented John Akomfrah’s first solo show in Spain in 2018, now on show at Bildmuseet at Umeå University, Sweden.
The exhibition explores the effects of climate change. Art Radar looks at the artist’s practice and the work in “Purple”.
An award-winning artist and filmmaker
John Akomfrah is an award-winning British writer, filmmaker, artist and philosopher, who in 1982 founded the Black Audio Film Collective. The group, comprising seven artists and film directors, developed a visual language addressing the links between the colonial past and the present of cultural production.
A recent recipient of the Artes Mundi Award (2017), the most prestigious British award given to contemporary artists committed to social, political and human issues, Akomfrah was born in 1957 in Accra, Ghana, and now lives and works in London. He has held numerous solo and collective exhibitions, most recently at institutions including the MoMA (New York, 2011), Tate Britain (London, 2013-14), and the Venice, Liverpool and Taipei Biennials (2015, 2012 and 2012 respectively). He has also participated in international film festivals such as Sundance (Utah, 2011 and 2013) and the Toronto International Film Festival (2012).
Throughout his career, Akomfrah has explored a range of themes associated with today’s most relevant issues, including post-colonialism, racism, emigration, memory and climate change, with the aim of provoking a reflection on each of them.
The colour purple
“Purple” marked Akomfrah’s first solo show in Spain, and consists of an immersive video installation, Purple, which was first presented at the Barbican Centre, London, at the end of 2017. In Spain, the exhibition was a collaboration between the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, and the contemporary art foundation TBA21 (Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary). The work was co-commissioned by TBA21–Academy, which promotes advocacy for ocean conservation through cross-disciplinary programmes and artistic production. It is now on show at Bildmuseet at Umeå University in Sweden.
In Purple, through six large-format screens, Akomfrah explores the effects of climate change and its consequence for biodiversity on the planet’s different communities through both archival footage and newly shot film.
In his first film, Handsworth Songs (1986), Akomfrah explored events relating to the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London. Other more recent works include Mnemosyne (2010), which looks at the experience of immigration in Britain, questioning the country’s image as the “promised land” and revealing the reality of the economy and racism, and Peripetia (2012), an imaginary visual drama based on characters depicted by Dürer in the 16th century.
At the 56th Venice Biennale in 2017, Akomfrah presented Vertigo Sea, a three-screen installation in which he reflects on the cruelty of the whaling industry with images that juxtapose scenes of emigrants crossing the ocean in search of a new life.
To some ways, Purple is a continuation of the ideas of Vertigo Sea, but with a different aim: that of offering a reflection on man’s destructive power over the planet and our indifference to this dramatic situation. The work is a wake-up call, and Akomfrah’s artistic voice alerts us to the dangers that are threatening global ecosystems and the beauty that we are about to lose as a consequence of progress: contamination, the rise in temperatures, build-up of waste products, deforestation, harmful fishing, oil spillages, factories, cities, large-scale agriculture, uncontrolled tourism. In addition, natural phenomena such as typhoons, hurricanes, storms and tsunamis further accentuate the havoc that these problems wreak on the life cycles of plants and animals.
In order to make his work Akomfrah undertook a lengthy trip, part of which was conducted as a TBA21–Academy expedition to the most remote island archipelago in the world. The viewer sees imposing panoramic shots of grand natural landscapes that have been altered by man, alongside archive images, through which the artist communicates a sense of loss that we experience when looking at this lost sublime.
Man and nature
The solitary figures that appear in some of these views, normally seen from behind, draw the viewer in. In contrast to the majestic scenes of endangered nature, the human figure becomes small and insignificant. With these impressive panoramas, Akomfrah conveys the feeling of emptiness we experience when contemplating some of the sights now lost to us. Are they lost forever? Akomfrah explains his own position in the work:
In a very real way I am present in the film. I am the figure wearing the brown shirt in the rain. It sounds a bit mystic but for me everything begins with the place. Aside from what we filmed, it began when I asked the landscape the same question: what can you tell me about the nature of climate change?
When discussing his choice of title, Akomfrah says his choice of ‘purple’ refers to the hybrid nature of that colour, created from a mixture of red and blue – ideal for representing opposing concepts. The represenation of opposites is also what his art is about: the vitality and vulnerability of things.
Purple is the colour that envelops the viewers as they move into the space of the video installation, with six, large adjacent screens that are almost touching each other and which extend to floor and ceiling level. Ambient light is reduced to a minimum, creating an effect of total immersion, which removes the viewer from reality. The installation has been designed to confront us with the picture of impending ecological disaster presented by the artist, as well as the modern-day arrogance that locates human beings at the centre of all things in the belief that humanity has sovereign power over all other species.
Part of the museum’s 25th anniversary celebrations, the installation marks the first collaboration with the foundation established by Francesca von Habsburg, daughter of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, Founder of the museum. The exhibition was part of the special programme for ARCO Madrid 2018, “The Future is not what’s going to happen, but what we are going to do”, curated by Chus Martínez. As Martínez wrote, and as Akomfrah’s work suggests,
The most destructive agent? Us. Influenced by the thinking of the American philosopher Timothy Morton, through his images John Akomfrah declares that the word ‘climate change’ is a euphemism to describe this vast and radical revolution against life. It is not a ‘change’ but rather a total substitution of a world for nothing, for its annihilation. The work is art but what it deals with is real.
“Purple” by John Akomfrah was on view from 20 February to 25 March 2018 at Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paseo del Prado, 8, 28014 Madrid, Spain. The exhibition is now on view at Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden, from 13 April to 16 September 2018; Museo Coleção Berardo, Lisbon, Portugal, October 2018 – January 2019 (dates to be confirmed); and ICA, Boston, United States, May – September 2019.
- “Playtime”: exploring the sociopolitical present with British artist Isaac Julien at Platform-L, South Korea – March 2017 – British artist Isaac Julien holds first exhibition in South Korea at Platform-L, Seoul
- British-Ghanaian artist John Akomfrah wins Artes Mundi 2017 – February 2017 – Artes Mundi 2017 goes to John Akomfrah’s award winning film Auto Da Re (2016)
- ‘Vertigo Sea’: Ghanaian-British filmmaker John Akomfrah – interview – March 2016 – Art Radar speaks with John Akomfrah to learn about the artist and his relationship with art
- Tuvalu returns to Venice with first-ever ‘sinking’ pavilion – January 2015 – the Biennale’s smallest national pavilion highlights the world’s biggest issue
- Adapting to climate change: Art and the community in the Cheng Long Wetlands, Taiwan – June 2014 – Cheng-Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Project continues to raise awareness about environmental issues
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