The opening titles to John Akomfrah’s ‘Mimesis: African Soldier’ (2018) state that “six million colonial subjects fought and served in the Great War” and that three-hundred and fifty-thousand died in Europe. Akomfrah’s three-screen installation interweaves archival footage with new material that commemorates those conscripted into the First World War by colonial powers, to fight for a cause not their own.
Akomfrah’s ongoing use of multiscreen installations means that the viewer encounters conversations between differing footages which create cohesive multiplicities: various narratives, perspectives and understandings. Akomfrah’s film focusses attention upon lesser-known histories of the First World War; histories which are not taught within a Eurocentric UK educational system and are complicit in a collective passing-over of colonialism and its atrocities. Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, was oppressed by European rule at the start of the First World War. The African Soldier is Akomfrah’s starting point through which he addresses other colonial subjects with footage of soldiers from other ex-colonised countries such as India. Archival footage shows exclusively non-white soldiers performing a plethora of vitally necessary roles to support the war including the building of rail roads, factory work, trench building, and lumber jacking as well as working as both mechanics and nurses.
Intersecting the archival footage are scenes which follow seven soldiers in colonial uniform wielding rifles and moving in ghost-like silence. The latter scenes incorporate slow-movements and are often shot from different perspectives shown simultaneously across several screens, presenting them as paintings in-themselves. The soldiers inhabit unknown landscapes; a coastline looking out to the sea or a barren desert with abandoned buildings and an uninhabited settlement. Throughout, flags of ex-colonial powers dominate the landscape and claim ownership of the different terrains. The film is frequently punctuated with words performing as subtitles to the moving images - ‘disenchantment’, ‘distress’, ‘discontent’, ‘disappointment’. Paired with the film’s powerful imagery, these subtitles evoke a sense of the personal and individual cost of war.
Later, family portraits and possessions are shown washing up on a shore with water rippling over them - indicative of the slowly-eroding memories of the soldiers. The inspiration for this scene may be the sinking of the SS Mendi: one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20thcentury in UK waters in which more than 600 men of the SANLC (South African Native Labour Corps) tragically lost their lives. Crucially throughout, Akomfrah’s soundtrack interlaces traditional African music and performance with ethnographical recordings of the 1920s and 1930s. In doing so, Akomfrah’s film weaves visual and auditory material together and creates a complex tapestry which exists with a timeless pathos.
Akomfrah’s film unites poignant archival imagery with new footage sensitively and intelligently chosen to invoke the memory of these forgotten soldiers. As a result, the film creates a space to reassess learnt historical narratives of the First World War whilst paying homage to those whose contributions have very often been overlooked.