press release

Reopens on June 16

John Akomfrah

February 21 – April 19, 2020

Exhibition talk: Friday, February 21, 6 p.m.
John Akomfrah in conversation with Osei Bonsu

The filmmaker and screenwriter John Akomfrah’s atmospheric films probe the structure of memory, thediasporic experiences of migrants, and the historical, social, and political roots of postcolonialism. A founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective (1982–1998), he continues to work with his long-term creative partners David Lawson and Lina Gopaul. Early on in his career, he established themultifaceted visual style of his filmic essays, for which he combines archival material from differentperiods of history, writings from literary and classical sources, and newly shot sequences in distinctiveand poetic montages. His editing consistently defies monolithic narratives and historical chronology.Many of the artist’s immersive video installations are multichannel visual compositions, unfoldingcontrasts and dialogues between image and sound to explore the implications of various junctures andstories.

At the Secession, John Akomfrah presents three film installations whose themes complement oneanother: the three-channel projectionVertigo Sea (2015) and the two single-channel piecesPeripeteia(2012) andMnemosyne (2010). A recurrent motif in his art that connects all three works on film is water,which acts as a reservoir of recollections; in the immensity of the ocean, it also marks the scene of thecolonial conquests and the transatlantic slave trade as well as contemporary migrant flows.

In Vertigo Sea,the artist moreover brings climate change into focus, scrutinizing the complexinterconnections between humanity’s devastation of the natural world and its self-destructive impulses.Stunning footage of natural scenes serves as the backdrop for a multifaceted reflection interweavinghistory, fiction, and philosophy.

The palette of images includes found material from the BBC’s archive of nature films as well as excerptsfrom TV reportages on the whaling industry and refugees on the Mediterranean Sea, plus new footagethat the artist recorded on the Isle of Skye, the Faroe Islands, and in northern Norway. The montage is rounded out by a soundtrack mixing whale songs, music for string orchestra, and the noise of gunshotsand explosions with readings of masterworks of literature in which the sea plays a salient role such as Herman Melville’sMoby Dick, Virginia Woolf’sTo the Lighthouse, and Heathcote Williams’s poemWhaleNation.

One character who appears again and again is a man in a historic uniform. He is an embodiment of Olaudah Equiano (1745–1797), a slave who became a freedman, a leading champion of the anti-slavetrade movement, and the author of an autobiography that was widely read in his time. Born in the Igboregion in today’s Nigeria, he was sold to slave traders when he was ten, shipped to America, and resoldseveral times before managing to buy his freedom when he was in his early twenties. Determined to choose his own path, he worked on various merchant vessels, participated in an expedition to the Arctic,and spent his later years in England. Akomfrah renders him as a lonely and forlorn figure gazing out at the sea, a compositional type that is reminiscent of the romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich andmakes Equiano a potential figure of identification for the audience. Following his gaze, we contemplatethe vast complexity of the reality the work portrays, in which sublime beauty coexists—indeed,coincides—with existential terror.

Nimbly juxtaposing what would seem to be incompatible narrative threads, Akomfrah’sVertigo Sea limnsunimagined interpretive horizons. As the title suggests, the different strands coalesce in a dizzyingmaelstrom that surges across time and space to expose interconnected geopolitical conflicts, the historyof colonialism, slavery, and migration, which has lost none of its power to inflict pain, and the subjugationof nature at the hands of the modern capitalist society.

The two other films,Mnemosyne andPeripeteia, are meditations on life in diasporas and the facets of recollection or, then again, of historical oblivion. Akomfrah’s point of departure in Peripeteia are some of the earliest depictions of Black people in Western art, such as Albrecht Dürer’s character studiesPortraitof an African Man(1508) andPortrait of Catherine (1521). Inquiring into the fates of the sitters andreimagining their stories, he shows the anonymous figures’ wanderings: wet to the skin and seeminglylost, they trudge through a desolate landscape. The film reminds us of the countless Black lives that went unrecorded and unremembered, an obliteration of identities reflected in the longstanding marginalizationof images of Black people in the historiography of art.

Mnemosyne, meanwhile, delves into the stories of postwar immigrants to Great Britain. Akomfrah dividesthe film into nine chapters, each of which is dedicated to one of the muses. In Greek myth, the muses arethe daughters of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. Creatively reassembling archival footage from a wide range of sources, the artist probes the nature of memory and urges a writing of history that takesinto account both personal and communal recollections. He combines the historic material with shots showing Black people in snowy sceneries. Like Equiano in Vertigo Sea and the anonymous characters in Peripeteia, they appear in places where, even though we know better, we do not expect to see them.Underscoring the experience of dislocation and the loss of all personal moorings, Akomfrah spells out theambition of his project: to resurvey and re-present Western cultural history from the migrant perspective.

John Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana, in 1957 and lives and works in London.

The exhibition program is conceived by the board of the Secession.

Curator: Annette Südbeck

Exhibition talk
Friday, February 21, 6 p.m.
John Akomfrah in conversation with Osei Bonsu
Osei Bonsu, Curator International Art, Tate Modern London
Talk in English

An event by the Friends of the Secession

Dialogue tour John Akomfrah
Sunday, March 15, 11 a.m.
Dialogue tour with Annette Südbeck, curator, and Andreas Ungerböck, ray Filmmagazin