Words Emmanuel Balogun
John Akomfrah's contribution to the Liverpool Biennial is unarguably the highlight of the UK event. The British-Ghanaian artist, filmmaker and writer, who recently received an honorary degree from London's Goldsmiths College, is known for his examination of Black-British identity and representation of the African diaspora through visual means such as film and photography.
Akomfrah's films tell the forgotten stories of the marginalised and the oppressed, while his wider work is about relationships and built with his informants and participants. "When you listen, people are more open to what they share with you," he says. In his first film Handsworth Songs (1988) Akomfrah spoke to people from the West Indian and Asian communities who experienced the cross-cultural tensions and prejudices that ignited the 1981 riots in Birmingham, UK.
Akomfrah's Liverpool Biennial film tells the story of the artist's long-time friend and collaborator, British-Jamaican cultural theorist and influential social thinker Stuart Hall. The film, The Unfinished Conversation, is split across three screens and explores Hall’s life, experiences and struggle to affirm his identity in the confines of British society. The film is stunning, a poetic revelation of existence and blurred identity.
Who are the people your films act as voices for?
These people are a community. My works resemble the people I grew up with that were forced out of their countries, that came to Britain to seek refuge or a better life. I grew up in communities full of Jamaican, West Indian, African or Asian people in exile and the people needed to be represented.
You draw inspiration from text and socio-political spheres; your works merges film, text and sound; you include the works of Emily Dickinson, Homer and William Blake... This seems to be what makes your work so special and so strong...
Well, when I grew up that was what interested me. That was around me; my mother would read to me and speak of these great theorists. This has always been the way I have worked.
Your work must take a tremendous amount of time, especially using archival footage from the BBC. Roughly how much time do you spend researching?
It can take six weeks to two-and-half years. On average I watch about 800/900 films and 1600 VHS/DVDS from BBC archives. My research can take a long time.
What can we expect from your new exhibition at Carroll/Fletcher gallery in London?
I am intrigued by disappearance. The works and lives of African artists in the European canon are rarely documented. They disappear. That says something about the diaspora.
John Akomfrah: Hauntologies at Carroll/Fletcher gallery in London runs from 5 October-8 November 2012.