Words by Zoe Guy
Photography by Rodrigo Carmuega
John Akomfrah is an alchemist of history, and his ingredients are fragments of the past. He winds through archives, plays with aesthetics, brings together disparate memories, and problematizes official narratives to explore Black identity, an environment that has undergone degradation and the legacies of colonialism. His chosen medium is documentary films and multiscreen installations that use clashes of image and sound in philosophical ways. That is to say, the artist has no interest in exposition, rising actions, or denouements. Instead, his films call upon a myriad of events to bring the present into sharp relief. In the interview, Akomfrah speaks about how art can be a tool for survival and change and how utopian visions for the future can be imagined.
Watching an Akomfrah film is as meditative as jarring because it asks the viewer to decentralize subjects and envision the world as fragments of one complicated, continuous whole. His latest work, Five Murmurations (2021), which screened at Lisson Gallery in New York, is an intimate vision of life during two pandemics: the coronavirus outbreak and the seemingly endless extrajudicial murders of Black people at the hands of police or those who are so drunk with white supremacy that they see themselves as vigilantes. The events of 2020 were often described as “twin crises,” where the world was being fundamentally altered by a virus that killed hundreds, and then thousands, of people a day; and a bubbling up of 400 years of American racism that incited protests in nearly every major city in the country. The black-and-white film shifts between periods, regions, and media to allow new meanings to take flight. Intertitles with the phrases “living with torment,” “catastrophe,” “hazard,” and “risk” are juxtaposed with images of isolated people and death counts, Andrea Mantegna’s “Lamentation over the Dead Christ” and George Floyd.
Five Murmurations is eerily present. The time during the past two years has been dreamlike and cinematic, in the ways that time has been paused and stretched, the way that time has imploded and become senseless. That is to say, it’s been two years since the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and two years since the world began sheltering in place, and yet the memory of those days still burns in my mind as if we are still living them. Akomfrah’s epic films operate under the same logic: history and memory are still steaming within all of us, whether we realize it or not. His work operates under the premise that our future and present are inextricably linked to a past that we cannot divorce ourselves from our compartmentalize.
Beginning with his early works, Akomfrah understood that structures and systems in power–from governing bodies and corporations to even cultural institutions–suffered from a kind of amnesia that allowed them to silo the realities of imperialism, environmental catastrophe, and anti-Black racism. Influenced by Tarkovsky, JMW Turner, and the semiotic tradition, his artistic output finds urgency in the poetic as a weapon to speak about Big ideas with a multiplicity of perspectives. His films demand that we consider what a film purports to depict and what images and sounds are left out. His films ask you to put two seemingly warring narratives in conversation with one another to see what different conclusions you can glean. His films ask you to consider how the changes that we see today are profound and sweeping but cannot be discussed in isolation.
Zoe Guy: How do you endure during these challenging times? I know that art can be a place where people can ask questions and maybe even find answers. But you personally, how do you deal with all of these changes?
John Akomfrah: I think my welfare has been tied to the pandemic in all kinds of complicated ways, and it has gone through phases over the last two years. So, in the beginning, I was terrified because I’d had pneumonia just before the first wave, and I thought, “Hmm, I’m really good material for this virus.” So my response was to go into flight mode. We closed the studio and battened down the hatches. I didn’t leave home for four or five months. And since then, I’ve been more courageous because I realized that all kinds of survival strategies that I can use would just keep me safe, which made it possible to both be in bunker mode and see other spaces. For instance, I went to Ghana and got a chance to see how others were dealing with this. And I’m glad I did that. It’s given me a sense of proportion, and it hasn’t felt quite as apocalyptic. I was there because my aunt passed away and went to bury her because it was my responsibility. I went with a certain kind of trepidation because I expected the situation to be worse, but when I got there, the exact opposite was the case. Just about everywhere I went, people masked up. So, I thought, “Okay, yeah, this is good.”
Did you get any inspiration from that bunker mode? Did the way you think about art change?
The first thing that changed was the realization that if you are a location-based [artist], you may not be able to produce anymore. If your work requires you to be at specific locations to get material—whether to shoot a video or photography—you suddenly realize that you have to shift focus in order to continue to work. I came back from Vancouver Island just before the pandemic [for scouting], but I couldn’t return for literally months afterward. And then that was it. And now I’m not sure whether I could go back because the whole project is now changed. I’m not even sure if it’s desirable.
You even have to think about restrictions on not only crossing the border, but also once you’re there, the mandatory quarantine, and if you get sick, whether you will be stuck there. There are so many more questions now that we didn’t have to think about before.
And then there are all kinds of ethical dimensions to these questions as well.
I’m often thinking about the control you have yourself as a filmmaker. We know that the camera allegedly documents the world as it is, but it’s also this highly mediated space because you’re pointing the camera, you’re deciding how to manipulate the image, you’re deciding how to edit the image, you’re choosing how to sound the idea. How do ethics influence your filmmaking practice with all those things in mind?
I’ve been obsessed with the question of indexicality because it’s the gateway to dealing with this question of the ethical and the moving image, for me. Because once the realization of the time becomes important in your understanding of moving image work, then you necessarily become aware of your collusion, your investments, and your alignments with the temporal, either in how you make things, how you watch them, or how you are allowed access to it.
The question of the indexical was essential to me, not in the semiotics way, but in a much more humanist and ethical way, because it essentially allowed me to access questions of agency. It allowed me to see the manifold complexities of agency at stake in both what I am allowed to do, what I do, and what I get to see. The ethical place is like a police force in this field of relations managing things, but it also alerted me to how things are being managed. As an artist of color, you come into the moving image space—especially with documentary—aware that there are boundaries and borders to what you do. Before you make anything, you’ve already seen quite a bit, most of which you kind of don’t like and quite a lot of which you do like, but you can see that it has very little space in its imaginings with your presence. There is a double move that I find intriguing in the presence of ethics in my work—a realization that I could do this and that we could make films. At the same time, you realize that there are real needs for people like you to do this. And those needs don’t go away. There is still something to be said for George Floyd, there is still something needed to say for a black woman who was in her house and who gets this Kafkaesque invasion into her life, and five minutes before that, she had no idea that this was what was coming to her. Who speaks to these things? Who talks about this? How do we make sense of it in our culture?
Taking up these images, appropriating them, and arranging them in the way that you do can almost be a secret weapon to get people to think about things in a more holistic way. I’m interested in what you said in one of your previous interviews. You said, “taking up the camera with a kind of shield.” From what I understood, you meant it was kind of a shield from the white cinematic and the white artistic tradition. How did taking up the camera, becoming an artist and filmmaker, shield you?
I think there are certain revelatory moments in one’s encounter with the cinematic. And those revelations involve realizing that it can speak real profundity about life, time, the accident and tragedy, romance, that is incredible. But for it to do that, you also have to embrace it in its totality. And the process of the embrace can be painful because you’re then taking on imagery and narratives that are not great. Not great in what they say about race, sexuality, gender, or nationality. And so part of the shielding that I’m talking about, the process of closing oneself against this, is then choosing to make things for yourself. I think that’s what I probably meant, and that is what I would say. I know what it takes to both declare love for something while being there and refuse some of its excesses simultaneously. It’s a bit like that Fanonian moment.
It always interests me how we as black people have to be the ones who imagine these utopian futures. We have to be the ones to push these ideas forward to hope that people will change, to expect that not even just people, but the way we think about the environment will change. And we have to take up that mantle because it almost feels as though no one else will.
You’re absolutely right to point that out. It’s connected to another pressing thing, which is that when I’m sitting in my space inside my studio, I’ve got a series of photographs of colonial Congo of groups of men [mainly at work], either cutting trees or working and digging the foundations of a new factory around the 1890s. The fact that these guys are there is a remarkable thing. And in making their presence known in these photographs, they are making a broad humanist comment—a broad anti-racist comment – which is broadly humanist. These photographs are also making an environmentalist comment because what the image reveals isn’t just race at work, but a certain environmentalist, extremist logic at work. And the very presence of these figures confounds all of that.
Do any of your environmental films and installations provide any answers to the kind of questions they pose about migration, race, or extractive capitalism? Do you think there are any answers that we can glean from these works?
Do I think the works merely raise questions? No. But even if that were the case, that would still be important. But the reason [that] is not the case [is] because I don’t think you can force the dialogic into being without also proposing a question at the same time [and setting] pathways by which those questions can be answered. For instance, I don’t think you can watch Vertigo Sea (2015) as a champion of slavery…I think the act of assemblage and reconstruction is necessary and laying down possible pathways by which one can walk those questions into the illumination. But that’s it, no more than that. That’s why I think asking questions is essential, because the tone, the manner, the aura of the questions shine the light. They glow to glean and offer pathways, which is all you could ask.
Would you say that any of your films envision a different future? After watching the uprisings in 2020 and hoping that things would change, I feel like things are the same. Do you think any of your films can imagine different possibilities within these pathways?
One way I could answer is to tell you what these works do for me and why they do what they do for me. Every time I put one out, every time I complete one, I am making a declaration of love and affirmation of the future. Because otherwise, you’d stop [making films]. The minute the work goes out, you are inviting camaraderie, conversation, interaction, and everything that I think the commons need. As long as you can put it out there, as long as I can make stuff, we are going to be okay because that is the precondition. The precondition is that we are alive and intend to say no to oblivion. We tend to say no to disasters.
The works, including the last one that I did in New York, Five Murmurations, don’t have a space outside of the social. So when all of these racial murders suddenly came into my life, the work became about conversations on police violence, its unreasonableness, and how that violence is practiced on the black body. Because the work is about those questions, I don’t get to a point where I can ever escape [these conversations]. I don’t have a space of luxury to disavow this kind of work.
My last question is something that you posed at a talk at the Hirshhorn in 2020: Who can we entrust with our collective future?
The great West Indian historian C.L.R James wrote a pamphlet on Black Emancipation in the ‘50s, and by the time it got to the conclusion, he discovered that mass action was the way forward. And he called this great phrase: “Every cook can govern.” It was essential to me when I read it in the ‘80s, and I’m still wedded to the sense that we collectively hold the answers to what should happen in our times. I have not lost the understanding that the ingenuity of the human is going to be necessary.
We need to be more aware of the frame itself rather than just our place in it. We need to be mindful that at any one point, wherever the frame is for our lives, there are others in that frame. And there are other considerations than just our welfare and our futures. Other dramas are being played out of extinction in the mind, nation, and birth—it’s not just us, ‘human beings.’ It’s important because, as a person of color, it has been part of my struggle for so long just to be considered a human being. So we have to keep pushing all the elements inside this frame, whether it would be environmental or ethical. These are all important because they’re connected to all the sentiments of the beings, of other possibilities, other…weather systems, and all of this is what makes the drama of what we are.