Poetic and political, John Akomfrah has been creating powerful multi-layered works that show the complex relationship between memory, identity and the practice of filmmaking over the last few decades. On show at the Arnolfini in Bristol is the acclaimed audio-visual odyssey ‘Vertigo Sea’ (2015), which premiered at the Venice Biennale, and a new film called ‘Tropikos’ (2016). In both films, Akomfrah carefully blurs contemporary issues and historical grievances in an evocative milieu of past and present. Lyrical and melancholic, the exhibition operates as a metaphor for global diaspora, manifesting itself as politically pressing due to the current migration of refugees and the rising ecological concerns about climate change. Akomfrah was eager for the piece to have its UK debut in Bristol, intending to develop a conversation with the city’s complicated maritime identity and links to the transatlantic slave trade. The resonant location of the Arnolfini itself, in the heart of the Bristol harbourside, recalls the site’s history as a trading port, reliant on human trafficking, and bringing wealth to a few and sorrow and death to millions.
The notion of vertigo suggests a loss of balance and a lack of equilibrium, which bears a relationship to the dizzying non-linear form of the installation. The use of three-channel film presents not only a multiplicity of narratives, but also of perception. The democratic use of a split screen means that no one will see the same set of images at one time. ‘Vertigo Sea’ functions as an expanded visual essay. The brutal plurality of content within it, whaling; polar bear hunting; nuclear tests; slavery; migration; drowned boats, all converge into violent and unflinching images. These atrocities are all connected and framed by being part of what Akomfrah refers to as an ‘oceanic ontology’. Alongside an abstract and viscous soundscape of wetness, wind and white noise, the audio narration is developed from literary sources. Akomfrah’s key influences were Herman Melville’s philosophical speculations on the aquatic and questions of mortality in Moby Dick, and Heathcote Williams ‘Whale Nation’, an epic poem charting the history, intelligence and majesty of the largest mammals on earth. Akin to slavery, whaling was a violent undercurrent instrumental to rapid industrialisation, often executed by people who were being similarly exploited. Mankind are represented as victims and perpetrators. As the narrator reminds us, “the ways of killing men and beasts are the same”. After hearing a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian men who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean, Akomfrah became fascinated with the sea’s meta-aggressive majesty.
The idea of the sublime, born out of the Romantics’ obsession with the ocean’s formlessness, is irrevocably linked to notions of spectatorship. Akomfrah worked with the BBC Natural History unit in Bristol, sourcing archival footage, which he mapped together with his own Victorian inspired tableaux. Actors stand pensively on cliffs, staring out to sea, surrounded by a litter of symbolic objects. Akomfrah describes his work with archives as ‘image taking’. By capturing an image of the present for the future it is assured an afterlife. However, the found imagery is represented in an open and symbolic manner. There is not one specific meaning; it functions as a meditative and global tapestry of collective memory.
‘Tropikos’, which is also on show at Lisson Gallery in London, is a new experimental costume drama that considers colonialism, maritime power and loss. Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Milton’s Paradise Lost, Akomfrah transforms the landscape of Plymouth and the Tamar Valley into a sixteenth century port of exploration. Reimaging some of the first British encounters with people from Africa, the film reveals the development of the slave trade. Using Brecht’s ‘Theory of Alienation’, the actors appear in a series of tableaux vivantes. These dream-like and ghostly long takes resemble the paintings of the period. Exquisite costumes and sumptuous bowls of pearls, exotic fruits, grains and nuts are laid out for the appraising eye of the spectator. Akin to ‘Vertigo Sea’, the narration is derived from literary sources, and a soundscape of wind; rain; church bells; ticking clocks, and abstract white noise like creaking or whispers, unfurls. The emphasis on rivers as the waterways of migration is particularly striking. Akomfrah blurs past and present. Elements of modern day Plymouth and contemporary ships can be seen in the distance of certain scenes. This symbolic and ghostly narrative fantasy represents Akomfrah’s desire to fight against forgetting and cultural amnesia. Traumatic collective acts and memories have been too often deliberately disregarded by society, and without acceptance, the repetition of history will continue to ensue.