John Akomfrah, an Artist Who Brings Order to Chaos

John Akomfrah’s films have shaken up official narratives around Black identity and imperialism. His latest tries to make sense of life in the pandemic.

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LONDON — Shortly before the artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah left Ghana for Britain after a 1966 coup, the nine-year-old-boy had a final encounter with his grandfather, the High Priest of the Akomfrah clan. The venerated old man wore a ring that had passed down through generations, representing the power to bring order to life’s chaos. It seemed like a perfect parting gift for his eldest grandson.

Instead the old man swallowed it.

Akomfrah always assumed this gesture signaled that the ring’s powers had ended with his grandfather, but when his friend, the filmmaker Arthur Jafa, heard the story, he instantly felt it meant something different.

“What his grandfather did as a High Priest was a perfect fit for what John does as a filmmaker,” Jafa said recently by phone: Akomfrah’s films also bring order to chaos, he said.

“When he swallowed the ring,” Jafa added, “that meant, ‘You have to apply what I’ve taught you in a radically new context. I’m so confident that you’re prepared for this task that I can take from you the material affirmation of it. Because I know you’re ready.’ “

Akomfrah, now 64, is too modest to call himself a High Priest of cinema. Yet for the past 40 years, he and his collaborators have shaken up official narratives around slavery, Black identity, imperialism and the environment with boundary-pushing films that seem timely today, even if they were largely ignored by the art world until recently.

These mosaic-like films retell marginalized histories, from his raw 1980s documentaries about race to his exploration of mankind’s destructive impulses in immersive multiscreen epics such as “Four Nocturnes,” which impressed critics at the 2019 Venice Biennale. After years of being sidelined, Akomfrah is enjoying newfound recognition.

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“Five mururations” intercuts archival material with black-and-white footage that is pared back to “an absolute basic of light, shadow and texture,” Akomfrah said.Credit…Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

His latest work, “five murmurations,” a three-channel film, will show at Lisson Gallery in New York from Sept. 9 through Oct. 16. The work is an attempt to make sense of some momentous events of the past 18 months: the coronavirus pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd, which sparked global protests in support of Black Lives Matter.

“It felt like there were almost two pandemics, overlapping, jostling and clashing with each other,” Akomfrah said recently in an interview at his airy London studio.

Conveying this sense of overlap, snippets of text like “Am I safe?,” “Fear” and “Dying helplessly” float in and out of focus throughout the film, obliquely linking shots of cozy domestic interiors with footage of masked protesters and police violence.

“I wanted to find a way of speaking about how generalized the sense of threat felt,” Akomfrah said.

Like Akomfrah’s previous films, “five murmurations” draws visual connections across media, time periods and geographies, creating echoes and affinities that allow new insights to emerge. In one kaleidoscopic sequence, for instance, stills of the police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck are juxtaposed with archival photographs of the executed revolutionary Che Guevara and the Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation over the Dead Christ.”

“There’s something really Christlike about George Floyd’s aura in death,” Akomfrah said. “Part of it is just the very public nature of the death: The banality, the stupidity of it — the sheer awfulness of it — seemed to transform him into something else.”

Akomfrah’s montage style has been his signature since the beginning of his career, enabling him to present multiple contrasting perspectives at once. Montage was more than just a method, he said: It reflects the fragmented nature of modern existence.

“All of us have this kind of jumble of experiences and emotions, they’re not whole,” he added. “For me the ethical task is to try and make these disparate themes, elements, forms, narratives, sit — not necessarily comfortably, but just sit momentarily with one another, long enough to form a story.”

This layered approach defined Akomfrah’s earliest works, made with the Black Audio Film Collective, an artists’ atelier he formed in the early 1980s with six friends while at college in Portsmouth, England.

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Akomfrah said his work brings together “disparate themes, elements, forms, narratives,” that “sit momentarily with one another, long enough to form a story.”Credit…Adama Jalloh for The New York Times

Lina Gopaul, Akomfrah’s long-term collaborator and partner, who was with the collective from the start, said the group “wanted to explore these questions of identity, how race is formed and who fixes it.” As well as making films, the group organized screenings, distributed other artists’ work and put on symposiums.

David Lawson, who was also in the collective, said its members absorbed diverse influences, including French New Wave cinema and the works of Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. The collective wanted to show that “there were different ways of making Black cinema, that were not just didactic or angry, but could be more poetic, more reflective, more meditative,” Lawson said.

Its 1986 documentary essay “Handsworth Songs,” about riots that broke out the previous year in London and Birmingham, England, offered an insightful take on the complexities of race relations in Britain. Through newsreel and original footage, overlaid with a sound montage, it told of immigrants from Britain’s former colonies arriving here full of hope, only to face police harassment, economic hardship and a willful amnesia about the country’s violent imperial past.

Tina Campt, a professor of media and modern culture at Brown University who studies the African diaspora in Europe, said in a phone interview that Akomfrah’s films challenge an “official narrative” about Britain’s empire as a source of comfort and security. “When you look at how unstable that actually is, and on whose backs that stability was waged, earned, perpetrated, that is the most terrifying thing,” Campt said. “And he does it very gently, in a way that seduces us.”

Black Audio Film Collective works played at the Cannes and Berlin Film Festivals and were broadcast on British television, yet the London art world showed little interest. For many years, Akomfrah worked primarily on television documentaries: first with the collective, until it dissolved in 1998, then with its successor, Smoking Dogs Films, made up of Akomfrah, Gopaul, their son Ashitey and Lawson. A turning point in how Akomfrah’s works are regarded came when Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian curator of the 2015 Venice Biennale, commissioned Akomfrah to make the immersive video installation “Vertigo Sea” for the exhibition.

An elegy to lives lost at sea, the film assaults the senses with rapturous shots of roiling oceans across three floor-to-ceiling screens. Historical footage of sailors harpooning whales is spliced with news clips of Vietnamese refugees onboard a sinking boat and staged shots of manacled Black men crammed into a ship’s hold. Akomfrah’s team traveled to Norway, the Faroe Islands and the Isle of Skye in Scotland to film striking tableaux with a cast of costumed actors, and also drew on footage from the BBC Natural History Unit.

“Vertigo Sea” announced a shift in focus, the artist said. Instead of privileging humans in the narrative, Akomfrah assigned equal, or even greater, importance to the sea and the whales. Years of thinking about what race means had led him to challenge other artificial distinctions, he said, like those between humans and animals. “Not that long ago if you were an enslaved African, or a serf in rural Russia, you were definitely not human for most of the people in power,” Akomfrah explained.

Landscapes, such as the sea, have taken on an increasing significance in Akomfrah’s work since 2008, he said, when he had a moment of clarity while filming in Alaska, near the site of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. “You start to think, ‘There are things that this place wants to say and it might not necessarily want to be just a playground for a human drama,’ ” he said. “It might have ancient wisdoms to offer.”

Nature vies with built environments in the six-channel film “Purple” (2017), which was filmed in 10 countries and contemplates humanity’s impact on the planet from the industrial to the digital age; images of belching oil refineries, frenzied factory production and traffic-choked highways suggest a civilization in overdrive.

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An installation view of Akomfrah’s three-screen film “Four Nocturnes,” at Lisson Gallery in London.Credit…Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery; George Darrell

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A still from “Vertigo Sea,” which was commissioned for the 2015 Venice Biennale.Credit…Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

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“Purple,” a 2017 work by Akomfrah, at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris.Credit…Smoking Dogs Films and Palais de Tokyo; Marc Domage

“Vertigo Sea” and “Purple” form a trilogy with “Four Nocturnes,” which was Akomfrah’s contribution to Ghana’s inaugural pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale: All three ruminate on time, memory, progress and, above all, humanity’s barbarity.

“You get a sense of a historical sweep and vastness that you associate with 19th century realist writers like Charles Dickens, or Victor Hugo,” said Massimiliano Gioni, who co-curated a 2018 exhibition of Akomfrah’s works at the New Museum in New York. “But it is achieved ultimately through a deeply postmodern language, which is that of the collage and fragment,” he added.

“Five murmurations” retains Akomfrah’s fractured approach, but it looks starkly different from his recent works. In the original material that intercuts the archival footage, there are no high-end visuals filmed in spectacular locations. Pandemic-mandated restrictions forced a complete rethink of his approach, Akomfrah said.

Shot largely in black-and-white in the homes of friends and family during last year’s lockdowns, these sections are pared back to “an absolute basic of light, shadow and texture,” Akomfrah said. Besides recording the events of history unfolding, “five murmurations” also portrays the individual experience of life in the pandemic. “A lot of it is really people trying to document moments of solitude and isolation,” he added.

The aim, as with all his films, Akomfrah said, is to engage viewers in a conversation that is “animated for sure, occasionally convivial, occasionally heated.”

“I’m not trying to save the world or anything,” he added. “I am trying to speak to it.”

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