John Akomfrah

Although born in Ghana Akomfrah has lived in Britain since the age of four. He is one of the UK’s most prominent film makers. Investigative and historical by nature, his work discusses the African Diaspora and the collective memory from a political perspective. Constantly aware of the pessimism in the media relating to migration in the UK has provided an impetus for his documentary film making and multi-channel video installations. He uses the platform of film to document an alternative point of view to that suggested by the media.

As a founder member of the speculative Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) Akomfrah was instrumental in the transformation of the documentary classification of film. They challenged the seemingly undeniable truths in the negative portrayal of black people in the mainstream media. Friedman reflects on the political statements of the time positioning Black British filmmaking in the forefront of independent cinema in the UK.

For Akomfrah, a theory of difference was necessary both for deconstructing a structured presence/absence of black people in the media and for the grounding of a politics of representation that was not fixed. (Friedman, 2006)

In his statement for the BAFC (initially published in the Artage magazine) Akomfrah considers the politics of distortion, and stereotyping that exists in media imagery. He observes that simply reversing this characterization to a positive would not resolve the issues of stereotyping. A deeper comprehension of the perceptions of the black culture is essential for trustworthy representation.

We not only want to examine how black culture is misrepresented in film, but also how apparent transparency is given ‘realism’ in film. It is an attempt to isolate and render intelligible the images and statements which converge to represent black culture in cinema. The search is not for “the authentic image” but for an understanding of the diverse codes and strategies of representation. (Lack, 2017)

Auto Da Fé (2016) is an enigmatic diptych that reflects upon six historical migratory stories over a period of 400 years to the present day. The displaced populations featured have all migrated as a consequence of religious persecution.

The circumstances that surround these migratory stories are fraught with turmoil and uncertainty, demonstrating the precarious nature of the situations experienced. The stories reflected in Auto Da Fé are increasingly commonplace in today’s society. Parallels can be drawn between the migratory journeys of the Sephardic Jews and the increasing levels of migrating communities that we now see today.

Migration is a subject widely discussed in the media today. Akomfrah became moved and appalled by the hostility towards the migrating communities. The increase of this antipathy portrayed throughout the media, became the motivation to start work on Auto Da Fé. As the production of Auto Da Fé progressed, Akomfrah felt a greater urgency and responsibility for altering the anti-immigrant political views and perceptions.

The single channel video installation Tropikos (2014) was presented with Vertigo Sea (2015). These two works were exhibited on a National Tour, which included The Turner Contemporary in Margate. A key aspect of this exhibition was the references to the maritime history of Bristol, a port when monumental journeys have historically begun and ended. Tropikos is a sombre, endemic observation of the slave trade. It focusses on the point in time where the Britain’s exploitation of Africa began, the theme of colonialism and slavery.

Both films together complete the journey and highlight the routes to the UK taken by the African Diasporic Communities. Tropikos juxtaposes the collective memories of the African people, with their experience of the South East of Britain. The people involved, however, possessed profoundly altered perceptions of the South East at that time. These people shared a collective memory through historical events, yet their unique experiences were poles apart. Tropikos questions how one would encounter the other. This film is particularly relevant in the world today, with the increasing media attention around the migration crisis.

More extensive exposure of these issues is through making film that is easily accessible that advocate’s further consideration. Artists fluctuate between the evident and the obscure when making work about representation. It can be suggested that further reflection is diminished when a film has an obvious, direct message. Akomfrah produces film that often appears ambiguous and confusing on the surface. Nevertheless, the diverse visual language he appropriates stimulates more critical thought and reflection on personal and collective memories.

He suggests not to make images or narratives more complex for the sake of obscurity or confusion, but to allow for contradictions and questions to emerge. Artists like Akomfrah, whose work touches on themes of Black diasporic collective memory, push us to ask how established ideas – and particularly, rigid, delineations between fact and fiction, politics and aesthetics may end up writing the limits of memorial activity, often moving us away from complexity. (Maclear, 1999)

Considered a film making pioneer, he has successfully discussed cultural and historical identity of the African Diaspora with political issues of the modern times. Combining original footage with archival material, his films are poetic and exploratory. They contemplate individual and collective memories and experiences in an attempt to provide a voice to the diasporic culture and their perceived status of Outsiders.

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