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“We Will Be Fine. We Will Absolutely Be Fine”: A Conversation with Artist and Filmmaker John Akomfrah

The Airport (Copyright Smoking Dog Films; Courtesy of Lisson Gallery)

In the early 1980s, the Ghanaian-British artist John Akomfrah became a founder member of the innovative, seven-strong Black Audio Film Collective, who curated programs of avant-garde world cinema and made their own work using slide-tape texts, film, and video. Their serious-minded, multifaceted output, much of which was directed by Akomfrah, alighted on subjects from the causes of race-related inner-city U.K. unrest and its media representation (Handsworth Songs) to the origins of Afrofuturism (The Last Angel of History).

The group disbanded in 1998, but Akomfrah has since operated extensively across film, television, and galleries, often in collaboration with former BAFC members. His expansive work — including post-colonial essay film The Nine Muses (2010), and last year’s Venice Biennale hit installation Vertigo Sea — has broached themes of international migration, the interplay of national and personal memory and the crucial importance of interrogating officially-sanctioned histories.

Last month, at Chelsea’s recently-opened Lisson Gallery, Akomfrah launched his first major solo U.S. exhibition, which takes the form of two multi-channel video installations. In the first, the elliptical, immersive three-screen effort The Airport, a spaceman lands in contemporary, financially-ruined Athens, makes his base a disused airport, and proceeds to silently encounter various disparate figures throughout different eras in Greek history. The second piece, Auto da Fé (which translates as Act of Faith), is a stately, stylized diptych which reimagines a number of historical migrations over the past four hundred years, beginning with the little-known flight of Sephardic Jews from Catholic Brazil to Barbados in 1654 and ending with contemporary exoduses from Mali and Iraq.

On the day before Britain cast its historic vote to leave the European Union, Filmmaker Magazine sat down with Akomfrah in an echoey back room of the gallery to discuss his new work, his thoughts on working in myriad different mediums, the perils of international migration, and a great deal more.

Filmmaker: This is your first major solo exhibition in the US. Why do you think it’s taken so long for it to come together?

John Akomfrah: There are logical reasons. One is that I joined the Lisson Gallery in London year ago, so they felt something should happen. I did have another exhibition, slightly smaller scale, at Michigan’s Broad Gallery, just over a year ago, which may have been the catalyst. Part of the problem that people might have had [with my work] is its ceaseless movement across borders and platforms: “Is he really from television, does he do cinema, or is he from the gallery world?” What I do know is that over the years — certainly since the 1980s, from Handsworth Songs (1986) onwards — the works themselves have done that. Everything we’ve done has had a life here, whether in a gallery or a museum. The works have always found the porous spaces in the joins between platforms, and have seeped through into each other. I’m very happy that this [exhibition] is happening, and it feels like a new thing because it has my name on it, but not completely new. I’ve been here over the years several times for group exhibitions.

Filmmaker: Have you detected any clear distinctions in the way that your work is viewed and discussed here compared to Europe? 

Akomfrah: Yeah. Weirdly enough, in the very beginning of the work [of BAFC] in the 1980s, we found an immediate audience and set of allies here. There were festivals across North America where the films found a space in the cinema. Over the years, occasionally, they’ve found room on television. The gallery has sort of been running alongside that. That’s meant, over the years, that we’ve had people who felt that the work spoke to their broad interests: what is Afro-diasporic, or what constitutes a black aesthetic, experimental work and so on. At the time, that wasn’t quite happening in England, weirdly enough. There was media and critical brouhaha over Handsworth Songs, but then there was a passage between Handsworth and the later work of the 1990s when we didn’t quite get the same sort of… not so much accolades, but pieces written about the work. But there were also overlaps, because this was happening at the time of what was then called the “Black Cultural Studies” project. It was migrating to the US, and you had the likes of Paul Gilroy and Kobena Mercer moving into the American academy. In a way, we were seen as part of that general black British cultural studies wave. There was a sense in which we were known more inside the American academy than the British one. Now I’d say it’s pretty even, because I get as many requests to speak about things in England as I do in the US.

Filmmaker: You speak of working in spaces with porous boundaries. It seems now we’re in a time of increasing malleability with methods of media consumption and delivery. Across TV, the internet, and film, things seem to be rapidly diversifying and less encoded. Maybe things have come around to you?

Akomfrah: I feel that. Normally when I get somebody either from the art world or the cinema world asking me “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?,” I kinda look at them and think “Have you not realized what’s going on in the world yourself?” One minute Todd Haynes might be working on Carol and before that will be doing a series for TV. The sense that somehow these borders are fixed and permanently in place, which characterized certain parts of the ‘80s and ‘90s that I knew, doesn’t feel to be the case any more. Many people have noticed the freedom that we’ve bought for ourselves to trespass across different lands. That comes with a cost, because it does mean that you’re not permanently ensconced in one field or another, so your ability to attract funding from one area isn’t quite as fixed. But it was a choice worth taking because we were interested in all the platforms. We were interested in seeing how different projects can be niche ones carved specifically for spaces, but which then had the possibility of afterlife. Very few of the early single-screen BAFC works stayed in one space, whether I wanted them to or not. That wasn’t a choice we were making. That had a lot to do with the dearth, as well, of “black stuff,” to put it crudely. If you wanted to program something on Afro-disaporic themes, we were there, regularly and routinely making it. Even if the work was made for and funded by television, it didn’t seem to matter because festivals like Toronto needed material. I think that will be less and less, because artists of color, and other groups, have seen their ranks grow exponentially since the 1980s. There’s just a lot more people working, and so more specialisms are taking place. I know people who specifically work in just television or just cinema. It’s a mistake, for me — but, hey, if you’re making it work for you, fine.

Filmmaker: Even though you’ve exhibited work for many decades, do you still get nervous when you’re putting on a new show? 

Akomfrah: I get nervous at two very telling moments. I get really, really nervous just as we’re about to embark on something, because it doesn’t matter how well-prepared you think you are. There’s something unnerving about the sense that in just a couple of minutes, hours, days, you’re going to face a new space, a new set of people. And then of course there’s the moment of opening itself. It doesn’t matter how many times you say to yourself “I don’t care, I’m an avant-garde artist!” It doesn’t matter how many layers of self-protection you adorn. The fact is that we do what we do because we want to have a conversation with someone: 3, 5, 5,000; it doesn’t matter, but we do want to have that conversation. The thought that it might not happen is a source of permanent anxiety. I think anyone who works in time-based media in general would be lying if they said otherwise.

Filmmaker: As someone who’s made films that audiences are supposed to sit down and watch from beginning to end, how do you feel about the inherent transience of the gallery space?

Akomfrah: It’s another of the permanent anxieties — whether people who are interested in and inquisitive about your work will give you the time. All you can ask is that people turn up, and then it’s kind of up to you to gently nudge them to stay. If they don’t, that’s OK. It’s a democratic offer — the offer says, “I will make this informal contract with you if you can acknowledge that duration is important in reaping unexpected rewards, but I’ll understand if you can’t.” It’s one of the things that you have to respect. When someone pays to go into the cinema, they sort of know what they’re going to get, they’re told in advance. One of the pleasures of the gallery experience is that stroll, the wander into a space you don’t know. There are attendant considerations for people. They might just have fifteen minutes to do this before they’ve got to go and pick up a child. I don’t have a totalitarian wish on this!

Filmmaker: Not tempted to lock the doors?

Akomfrah: I know an artist — who must not be named! — who has that approach: once you’re in, the doors are locked!

Filmmaker: It’s funny, isn’t it, how these spaces are coded differently, implicitly?

Akomfrah: I recently went to a cinema in London, and before the film started, people were very cognizant of the need to share that space of silence, democratically. It’s almost enforced on people, most people don’t talk. That premium on the collective doesn’t seem to be one you find in the gallery. People do it anyway; they sit down and watch it without talking. But if you did talk no one’s going to come up to you and say, “Shut up, I’m trying to watch something,” because they don’t feel it’s their call to make. There are certain inherently democratic outliers to the gallery experience, so one wants to respect that, but the ontology of the work has very specific claims on your time.

Filmmaker: To move on to your new work: Auto da Fé is concerned with flight and forced migration. What with the ongoing crisis in Europe, and the way the subject of immigration has been harnessed by the Leave campaign as the key reason to vote for Brexit, against any demonstrable fact, it feels horribly of the moment.

Akomfrah: It suddenly struck me that one of the themes of all narratives of emergency is to shatter a certain continuity. [Now-former UKIP leader and Leave figurehead] Nigel Farage has to persuade us that when he puts up a poster of 150 people trying to get into Britain, this is a flood. More importantly, that this is an exceptional flood, and even more importantly that this is an unusual flood. Well actually Nigel, no. Not since the Norman Conquests. This is not exceptional. For the people involved, those images that he’s chosen, they are caught up in something that is obviously absolutely unique for them. If you’re a refugee running away from Syria you don’t need to know that what you’re doing is taking flight in the same way as a Sephardic Jew trying to escape the Catholic Inquisition, or the Auto da Fé in Brazil did 350 years ago. But it is a fact. It did happen, and it did happen in exactly the same way. My task is to offer people these narratives — it’s not trying to deny that they have uniqueness or specificity — so that they don’t appear strange, or as aberrations. I think they are forebears, they have antecedents, they have other phantoms stalking them in pretty much the same way as Nigel Farage speaking in that tone. He’s not unusual. He may say he is, but there are others, whether it’s Oswald Mosley, Lord Haw Haw, these bogey idiot, right-wing nutjobs, we remember them.

Filmmaker: “Bogey idiot, right-wing nutjobs” has a certain ring to it.

Akomfrah: I’m not interested that much in Nigel Farage but I am interested in rescuing from oblivion a certain way of living in the world which is characterized by flight, and flight from spaces of disorder and chaos. I think there’s a way in which one can see this as a grand regime running alongside the slightly more recognizable one of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Vasco de Gamas, in other words: the flights which are utterly sanctioned, completely safe.

Filmmaker: And lionized, too. These noble movements that are taught in schools.

Akomfrah: When Isabella of Spain is saying in the 1490s to blacks and Jews, “leave Spain,” she’s also blessing the seafarers who’d go on to “discover” The New World. These are happening at exactly the same time. One will be lionized and treated as objects of the sacrament, and others are to be banished.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about connecting past journeys with the present in Auto da Fé?

Akomfrah: With regard to the Sephardic Jews fleeing Brazil, one sees these people before their disappearance, and one knows that there’s an after-the-fact that was long enough for them to die and be buried in a cemetery in Barbados. You know that much. The question then is how do you make these people talk to each other? I know there’s not supposed to be some commonality between Sephardic Jews in the 16th century and Syrian refugees in the 21st, but there is. There are certain outliers and features of their lives in common, and I don’t care whether that’s something you’re supposed to mention or not, but it’s important to say that in a way that doesn’t demean, or demonise, or make illegal any of those people. It’s important that they are seen as part of a narrative continuum that runs alongside a much more revered one — the narrative of victors and the anointed. They matter as much.

Filmmaker: It strikes me as heartbreaking that we should still need to “humanize” people who migrate.

Akomfrah: A lot of the work that’s been done over the last 20 years by social thinkers like Judith Butler has alerted us to the precarity, the bare quality, of certain forms of existence, and we forget that at our peril. There are communities that exist permanently in these precarious states, and the first thing they fucking need is for us to recognize their humanity. Because if we don’t, they’ll be treated, and are already being treated — as some journalists have called them — as cockroaches. And this space for the subhuman is a dangerous one for any subject. If you can be rendered subhuman anything’s possible, licensed. I feel this especially coming from the family I do: they arrived in England from Ghana as political refugees in 1966 thinking, “Where are we going? How are we going to get there? What’s going to happen to us?” I remember that. I was born with that kind of anxiety as part of the DNA, when you know that life is precarious, on the edge, it could just go. When you watch your parents live that, it becomes something that you pick up. You know how soul-destroying it is, so it matters to me on that very basic autobiographical level, because the ability to assure someone like that — either as a state, or a community, or as an individual — that actually things will be OK, is half the task. Most of those people you see in these boats, they just want the assurances of history, they want the assurance that things will be better. You can’t be completely sure that you’ll survive this, so when they do, they deserve a little bit more than just being called rats or cockroaches.

Filmmaker: Moving on to The Airport: I was struck by the James Baldwin quote at the start, which in part reads, “Music is our witness, and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognises, changes and conquers time.”

Akomfrah: The quote is very important to me. Baldwin always had this ability to succinctly convey in short spaces—a paragraph or so—what it took WEB DuBois to do in the space of a whole book like “The Souls of Black Folk”! He always had this way of making things absolutely clear. There’s a moment in Horace Ovés film Baldwin’s Nigger, after Baldwin has finished this 27-minute monologue. Dick Gregory turns and says, “Damn, Jimmy!” I always feel like that with him.

Filmmaker: And use of music in your film — the traditional Greek song alongside all the very ominous sound design — is central to creating a sense of national history.

Akomfrah: The thing I love about Baldwin’s quote is about how music commandeers history as an ally, how we can use music as an ally in wearing history comfortably. And that’s important for me because I’m an outsider. I am a spaceman in Athens a year ago, and I’m trying to make sense of something called a “crisis.” And I know instinctively that the idea of a crisis is a kind of ruse, a MacGuffin. What Greece has been told is, essentially: your state is fucked. You’ve had it. You’ve had a century of experimentation to make your nation and you’ve failed. That’s what they’re being told but it’s not how they’re being told it: it’s, oh, you’re in debt. You owe. I thought, how can I deconstruct this notion of crisis as a way of dismissing a century of government experiment? Slowly, I thought one possible way is via the song, because songs encode a certain type of utopia either for solidarity, solitude or union. These are all the things that matter in the airport. The multiple ways in which people try to live, being weak, in a century. Traditions and taboos that they’re trying to run away from, loves they’ve wanted to have and messed around and messed up on. Journeys they took when they were walking on their own towards freedom and they were walking down a road that somebody else laid down for them and they didn’t realise. I wanted a way of talking about those things, and music — specifically the Greek folk song — provided me with the clues as to how to do it. It’s not that the music itself does it, but it becomes an ally for certain historical moments or events in which one can construct a feature of Greek life across a century.

Filmmaker: There’s something haunting and tragic about the airport itself. It struck me that there are few greater metaphors for failed dreams than a destroyed, disused airport.

Akomfrah: This is the thing which got me about the airport: When you first see it, it is absolutely stunning, like one of the best modernist projects I’ve seen. And so in that sense the airport in its inception embodies a certain wish, a fantasy, nationally, if you will: we’ll make our life whole. It boasts the fact of that ambition as well as the myth of that ambition that takes place in people’s heads. If you’re stuck in a village and you’re told you can’t leave, you’re too poor, the idea of flight itself can be symbolized by the airport, as the ambition of betterment. From the airport, one can literally take flight into real places or imagined and fantasy spaces. You just have to see [the airport] to see that. You sit there and think, yeah, life’s gonna get better. In five hours I’ll see the wife, the kids, a new country. It was those things. I thought, fuck, until you see an airport empty, you don’t realize that’s what it is, what it props up in the national psyche.

Filmmaker: You make fascinating, and frankly unsettling use of the three screens. There’s a sense of voyeurism of characters watching each other and being watched, and you pull off these chronological leaps without even knowing, as the viewer, that you’ve traversed through eras.

Akomfrah: I was trying to think of a way of doing our own version of a sensory ethnographic project. A way of alerting people to the fact that the spaceman is doing what we’re doing. He is us. We are rummaging through a series of discrete events from the past, albeit fiction, but alluding to things we’re not in complete control of, which we don’t understand, that we’re always outside of it looking in. The paradox of it is that without that figure, none of this would come out. Without me doing this, literally, we wouldn’t be here. I am rummaging as an outsider, a space cadet, through chapters of the Greek past in which the opacity of things to me need not necessarily be the same to someone else watching it. My involvement in it is part of the act. My place in it is part of what you’re watching, and that’s important. I stand in the airport, and this is the place where allied forces would land, hear those voices….

Filmmaker: The spaceman figure actually reminded me of the “Data Thief” who travels back through black cultural history in The Last Angel of History, and the silent observers on the fringes in The Nine Muses.

Akomfrah: Yes. This figure gets me into an unusual amount of trouble. There’s always someone who says, “Oh it’s too romantic,” and by “romantic” I think they mean that it’s over-reverential. It doesn’t feel like it to me, because the history of romanticism that I’m attached to is romanticism as it points to the volatility of things, and the complicity of the human being in this space without the gods. That’s not a comforting thought, it’s not a palliative. It’s just a statement of a certain turbulence of things. It may not look that way — I’m not shaking the camera about, making things scary! But I don’t think anyone should assume that those images are benign in ambition anyway. They might be in effect, but certainly not in ambition.

Filmmaker: Lastly, and on a slightly different tack, I wanted to bring up Stuart Hall, who pioneered methods of “decoding” the media for its implicit use of stereotypes and perpetuation of racist and sexist ideas. Something I’ve noticed recently in my [too] many hours of Twitter use is that a younger generation seems to be really adept at doing this — calling instant bullshit on things like police mugshots being used by mainstream media for unarmed black people getting murdered by cops.

Akomfrah: Yes, we’re all the better for this kind of engagement. Occasionally, as you’re about to succumb to this melancholia — “Oh, everything’s terrible!” — you’ll see someone that breaks down a film or an image in a way that you hadn’t quite thought about, and you think there is life after all, and it will be fine. Even to watch young nieces and nephews play games in a way that even if I try now, I couldn’t. I just don’t think that fast. These are good things. We will be fine. We will absolutely be fine.

John Akomfrah” runs at Lisson Gallery, Manhattan, through August 12.

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