The search for imagined relations

John Akomfrah is a leading voice of the African diaspora. His astonishing work Vertigo Sea was recently exhibited at the Centre of Contemporary Art, Christchurch. Andrew Paul Wood talks to the artist.

First seen at the 2015 Venice Biennale in Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition All the World’s Futures, John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea washes over and surrounds you. It’s a dense, panoramic and poetic piecing together of footage from different sources with the ocean as the central metaphor for the interconnectedness of things; it’s beauty and danger, environmental themes, the highway of immigration, colonisation and refugees fleeing a lost home for asylum elsewhere. There are also the brutal horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. The migrations of seabirds and whales segue effortlessly and monumentally into footage of whaling, of migrants out at sea, or alluding to art historical depictions of slavery.

It can be incredibly harrowing—footage of whaling ships, their decks awash with blood, polar bears being hunted, people being thrown naked from planes into the sea (a method of execution that, with gruesome variations, became fashionable with South American regimes as a way of terrorising their populations), and footage of atomic tests in Bikini Atoll. It is the sea that binds it all together. Obviously this has powerful resonance with the plight of sea-going asylum seekers today. Vertigo Sea was shown at the Centre of Contemporary Art along with Bridget Reweti’s Tirohanga, and both artists reflected on the impact of colonialism from African migration and Māori perspectives.

“The sea was very much both the point of the thing and the point of departure for the thing,” Akomfrah says. Inspiration began with English poet Heathcote Williams’ epic 1988 poem Whale Nation, which inspired and defined the global anti-whaling movement. This lead to him reading Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick. These and other sources where, as Akomfrah says, “the universe doesn’t exist outside of the sea,” become the soundtrack, providing a kind of distanced narration.

Akomfrah was born in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in 1957. His parents, who had been educated in the UK, were anti-colonial activists. Akomfrah’s father had been a member of Kwame Nkrumah’s political party that lead Ghana to independence from Britain the year Akomfrah was born. Akomfrah’s father died shortly before the coup that deposed Nkrumah in 1966 and his mother, fearing for herself and her four-year-old son, returned to London. The experience informed his work. “The search for imagined or imaginary relations, even the desire to make connections, appeared very early on. You use these to negotiate with the outside world, to arrive at a new synthesis that is you.”

Growing up in West London, Akomfrah graduated with a degree in Sociology from Portsmouth Polytechnic, now the University of Portsmouth, in 1982. He’s one of the founders of the Black Audio Film Collective, which between 1982 and 1998, did much to examine black identity in Britain through film and other media. His first documentary Handsworth Songs explored racial tensions in Britain in the 1980s. In 1998 he co-founded the production company Smoking Dogs Films. He has been a long-serving governor of both the British Film Institute and Film London, and is internationally recognised as a leading voice of the African diaspora along with the likes of Stuart Hall (the subject of Akomfrah’s 2013 film installation The Unfinished Conversation), Greg Tate and Henry Louis Gates. He was awarded an OBE in 2008 and holds no fewer than three honorary doctorates, from University of the Arts London, Goldsmiths, and his alma mater in Portsmouth.

The footage comes mainly from three sources. Much of it was sourced from around 20 years worth of footage from the BBC’s Natural History Unit, informed by Akomfrah’s love of nature, some from the BBC archives where he knew what he was looking for, and the smaller part from the British Film Institute. With the latter, Akomfrah says it was a matter of, “What do you have, and what can I have?” It’s a complicated, time consuming business. “None of this stuff is ever easy and you do it because that’s the work.”

The idea came to Akomfrah in 2006, well before the current crisis, inspired by the story of a Nigerian refugee who was flung overboard on the way to Europe, and survived by clinging to a fishing net. “It’s very much how I’ve always approached things,” says Akomfrah, “start from something that interests me, however big or small, and see what conversations it can have.”

There is new footage too, purpose-shot on the Isle of Skye, the Faroe Islands and the northern extremes of Norway. Some of it is quite surreal. A figure that keeps reappearing in the work is a black gentleman in 18th-century European attire and tricorne hat. He stands on a promontory looking out to sea in a posture reminiscent of the 19th-century Romantic landscapes of German painter Caspar David Friedrich. This figure represents Olaudah Equiano (c.1745–1797), an African kidnapped from what is now Nigeria and enslaved, who went on to become a seaman and merchant. Equiano became a prominent figure in London society and a key figure in the movement to abolish slavery, writing an autobiography vividly depicting its horrors and lobbying Parliament. “He was the figure I had most in mind as a kind of witness to these tales,” says Akomfrah, and to a lesser extent he’s a surrogate of the artist, “a stand-in for oneself to wrap your feelings and obsessions around.”

The allusion to the art of the Romantic movement in the 17th and 18th centuries is not a casual one. This international art movement struggled with humanity’s strengths and flaws. Akomfrah offers Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819) as an example because it represents people of multiple ethnicities and backgrounds more or less equal in what he calls “a commonwealth of pain.” He contrasts this with other artists of the period who included people of colour only as “participants in the drama as a picturesque difference of pigment.”

“Art history was the means by which I arrived at insights of the slave trade. The first indication I had of people being thrown into the sea was Turner’s The Slave Ship,” says Akomfrah. Turner painted this in 1840 after reading Thomas Clarkson’s The History and the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808) and the 1781 account of the captain of the slave ship Zong ordering 113 slaves to be thrown overboard in order to collect the insurance.

This is part of what Akomfrah describes as “art history’s complicity in the indictment of the trade.” He says, “In the broader sense, the Romantic tradition is important because of the broader question of the Sublime, not just the Beautiful, but also the strange, uncanny mix of the Beautiful and also the terrible. In some ways the teeth, the radical implications of Romanticism have been cast aside (by popular taste) in favour of the beauty.” For the Romantics the Sublime was the transcendent and unknowable, Nature or God. It is, as Akomfrah says, the thing that “gives insight into our solitude in the grand scheme and cosmos of things.”

John Akomfrah © John Akomfrah; Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

“Art history can be named as a culprit in a drama of stereotyping, but equally, from the 16th century onwards, what’s useful in history painting and the Romantic tradition in general is that it throws out questions about the troubling moments I’m talking about … You see the attempt to wrestle with what I’m trying to deal with. What is the demarcation between what is human and what is not? And who makes those demarcations? And what happens when those demarcations blur and humans become cargo?”

It’s a universal story, but given these historical and geographical roots, what should Vertigo Sea say to a New Zealand audience not as familiar with the context?

“Occasionally,” Akomfrah says, “one makes a work where at the end of it you’re touched by the insight that it will travel to different locations where it will be seen differently. At the heart of it there’s a community of sufferers. Only at the end I realised that it could travel and mean very different things to different people.” He refers to the victims of Latin American regimes, the Vietnamese boat people of the 1970s, and the Arab Algerian freedom fighters of the 1950s. “You have elective affinities at the level of mourning with people you have probably never heard of. What I’m here to do is humbly and respectfully reveal that. When I started, it never entered my head. Only in the final stages it struck me. When what you have tried to achieve—create this community in the space of a triptych—is working … Seeing myself moving seamlessly from one chapter to another, and if I see this, others might see it and be surprised by it in different contexts.”

“Triptych” in this case refers to the three simultaneous projections of Vertigo Sea. “The form is one that became increasingly interesting for me as I dug more into film history and realised it was one of the early option formats for film, discarded because it was too expensive.” The format was first used by Abel Gance for his 1927 film Napoléon. “I decided to try to retrieve and explore it because of the possibility of a democratic state of spectatorship that disposes with the tyranny of the single screen. The offer is a discursive one. One enters into a gallery space and finds a kind of solitude having a conversation across three screens that will be very different for each person, a space where grown-ups can go and be confident of not being treated as a mass because it exaggerates the subjective while offering the opportunity to experience the same story as someone sitting next to you.

“I regret,” he says, “not being able to see Vertigo Sea in situ, it would have been very satisfying to see it in Christchurch, belonging to different places.”

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