Ghana-born British filmmaker John Akomfrah garnered international acclaim with his haunting film Vertigo Sea (2015), one of the highlights of last year’s Venice Biennale. Through a rich lattice of references ranging from Moby-Dick to the slave trade, and interweaving breathtaking archival footage with fictional material, the film evokes themes of displacement, empire and collective memory, using the sea as a vehicle.
Akomfrah extended his exploration of these themes in his first exhibition with Lisson Gallery, which marked a shift in focus from television and cinema to the gallery space. A pioneer of black avant-garde cinema in Britain, in 1982 Akomfrah cofounded the Black Audio Film Collective, which gave voice to the underrepresented and challenged official versions of events through powerful multilayered films such as Handsworth Songs (1986), about riots in London and Birmingham. In the three new films at Lisson (all 2016), presented in separate rooms on gigantic screens with surround sound, Akomfrah employs a nonlinear, bricolage style that echoes that of his previous works but largely dispenses with the documentary footage that had formerly underpinned his practice, instead using actors to convey imagined and historical scenarios.
Tropikos, described in press material as “an experimental costume drama,” reimagines early encounters between Africans and Elizabethan explorers. Filmed in Plymouth and the waterways of southwest England, it recalls the area’s role in the global slave trade. Akomfrah collapses time and place, emphasizing the dislocation of the diasporic experience and the brutality of colonialism. To a collaged soundtrack that includes quotes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Milton’s Paradise Lost, various jarring tableaux appear on screen: a black man in a ruff and breeches watches modern frigates ply the water; a robed African with chalked face sails past a rain-drenched landscape aboard a vessel laden with exotic spoils.
Ghosts of the past also pervade The Airport. In this three-screen work an abandoned airport in Greece becomes the stage on which men and women in Edwardian dress, musicians, an astronaut, even a person in a gorilla suit—in a clear nod to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)—glide between past and present. Lingering takes and fluid temporal transitions pay homage to the Greek film director Theo Angelopoulos, lending a dreamlike feel.
The third film, Auto da Fé (Acts of Faith), considers eight historical migrations that have taken place due to religious persecution. Beginning with the flight of Sephardic Jews in 1654 from Brazil to Barbados, the film winds through Huguenot times to present-day Mosul in Iraq. Although it resonates poignantly with the ongoing refugee crisis, Auto da Fé is the least successful of the three films, dependent as it is on fleeting intertitles and period costumes to make sense of the continuous flow of migrations. Certain imagery feels heavy-handed, such as shots in which a broken doll and historical photographs of the Ku Klux Klan are shown washed up in the surf, to underscore the common tragedy of persecution across cultures.
As an ensemble, the three works maintain an emotive poetic dialogue with one another—and with Vertigo Sea—through a mirroring of imagery and motifs. Figures, often burdened with bags, sacks and valises, stare across the centuries and out to the sea—that age-old symbol of escape and danger, transition and uncertainty. From raging ocean to lapping turquoise waves to English drizzle, the motif of water threads through these films and seems to engulf the viewer.
Akomfrah has been preoccupied for the past 30 years with identity, colonialism and the diasporic condition. Recently nominated for the Artes Mundi award, he is at an important crossroads. His project remains political, yet, as he has claimed in interviews, the gallery setting has given him a new freedom, allowing for even greater experimentation. His new films, with their sequences of beautifully composed, painterly images and open-ended tone, ask existential questions, about time, alienation, memory and man’s barbarity to man. Akomfrah offers no answers but provides a compelling journey.