Henry Hoovers are a common fixture of most gallery spaces. Compact, durable and able to vacuum dust without loosing suction, they’re usually found in the utility closet during opening hours. At Larry Achiampong’s latest exhibition at John Hansard Gallery, they are out and in formation. ‘Attack of the Henrys’ presents a battalion of unplugged hoovers that, devoid of their usual purpose, create a scene that is more uncanny than dystopian. Their vapid smiles and glazed over eyes seem to track me across the gallery, and I cannot help feel as though I am being watched over.
The doomsday evoked in the installation’s title is echoed in that of the exhibition. ‘When the Sky Falls’ presents works that explores the concept of Sanko-time, a term coined by Achiampong that is taken from the Ashanti word ‘sankofa’. ‘Sankofa’ is associated with the proverb: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” Achiampong’s work is centred on such revisitations, using moments in his past to reflect upon the realities faced by African diasporic communities as a result of colonialism and its enduring legacies.
Take ‘The Expulsion’, a new video work that recounts aspects of Achiampong’s youth when he accompanied his mother whilst she cleaned for a living. The Henrys guide the viewer to a seating area of office chairs and corporate foliage. The video follows a figure as they travel through similar office space, as they clean in solitude during nocturnal hours. These are “the faces of normal labour hidden from the white collar types.” We watch the figure vacuum, sweep, mop, repeat. Cleaning the offices of corporate companies and banks becomes an expulsion of the grime of the workplace. Secrets are tidied away with the trash, screens are wiped of their dust and sins. The narrator tells of their time cleaning TV studios in Elstree: “One summer London was burning; the next Big Brother was taking over the house.” The Henrys watch on.
The video is understated, almost muted, in its production. Achiampong intentionally lets the mundanity of the labour speak for itself, with the narrator’s angst building throughout the video. He recounts longing for the lives of other boys in his class at school - the designer clothes they wore, trips to football games, family holidays they took. “That was never going to be my family’s reality” the narrator says. Whilst the monotonous work bores the narrator to the point of wrath, it provides its own sort of expulsion akin to ritual or prayer. The video closes as the narrator repeats a mantra told to him by his mother; that their way out of this reality is books, education. Books, education. Between loops of the video, a new sound work, ‘Breath of Asase Yaa’, provides an audial sweeping of the space. Another expulsion, this time for the viewer. Achiampong forces the viewer to confront these stark realities of a workforce underpaid and underappreciated and a diaspora facing the repercussions of a system that continues to work against them.
As I leave the gallery, I look back at its facade to see a mapping of the future: six huge flags, part of Achiampong’s ongoing ‘Relic Traveller’ project. Emblazoned in green, red and black, the flags present an emboldened and realistic vision of Pan African Futurism. Whilst these flags are not intended to stand for an abstract utopia, the project reflects on the realities of the vast continent’s land, communities and histories. These flags’ upward drive suggest a more positive future, towards equilibrium and equality, but one that can only be reached by working through those periods we may not want to revisit, which others wish could be tidied away. Such revolutions seem, like the Henrys, to be in the wings: smiling, watching, waiting.