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Critic's Notebook: What Filmmaker John Akomfrah's Work Tells Us About the Present By Way of the Past

By Celluloid Liberation Front | Indiewire October 5, 2012 at 11:02AM

True to his post-colonial interests, Akomfrah's work blurs and re-imagines the distinction between video art and cinema. While his conceptual rigor and semantic preoccupations suit the immersive spaces of video art/installation, his lyricism calls for the scope of the big screen.
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"All over the world museums have bowed to the influence of Disney and become theme parks in their own right. The past is re-assimilated and homogenized into its most digestible form. Desperate for the new but disappointed with anything but the familiar, we re-colonise past and future." – JG Ballard
 

John Akomfrah's "The Allegories of Mourning."
John Akomfrah's "The Allegories of Mourning."

Around the corner from the London gallery where the latest exhibit of filmmaker and installation artist John Akomfrah's exhibition took place is one of the main commercial thoroughfares of the English capital: Oxford Street. A quick stroll on "shopping boulevard" might leave one with the impression of traveling through time. Punk paraphernalia and cyber clothing, Victorian junk piled up on the latest fashion collection, iPods next to ghetto blasters, film posters advertising the latest remake -- the entire street is an incoherent accumulation of eras. There is neither chronology nor meaningful order, the lowest common denominators being a display window and a price tag. Perhaps by accident, these details epitomize Akomfrah's work.

The scene calls to mind what music critic Simon Reynold dubbed Retromania, pop culture's current obsession with its own past, a sort of aesthetic cataclysm where pop history exhausts itself in a timeless vacuum. The ghosts of the past happen to be the subject matter of "John Akomfrah's Hauntologies," his new exhibit that opens today in London at the Carroll / Fletcher gallery. Born in Ghana, Akomfrah immigrated to England where he studied art before founding the Black Audio Film Collective. He has consistently treated the past as a science fiction gateway through which to analyze the present.

Akomfrah's work blurs and re-imagines the distinction between video art and cinema.

Akromfah never wallows in nostalgia. Instead, he visualizes the influence of the past. This focus on time and the elapsing of memory underscored his primary source of concern and inspiration: The African Diaspora. From the first slideshow conceived with the Black Audio Film Collective, "Signs of Empire," to his last film, "Nine Muses" (presented at the Venice Film Festival in 2010), his work has resolutely tried to rescue from oblivion the histories of migration, exploitation and struggle lost in the glare of consumer "multiculturalism."

Anything but outdated, the cultural discourse Akomfrah forwarded throughout his career has now grown more relevant as the stateless and rootless nature of the Diaspora has come to characterize wider social issues. Talking to BBC radio, he recently observed that "the sense of transience that characterizes all Diasporas, not just the African one, seems to me to be part of the existential condition of our modernity, that sense of uprooted flux that is now part of all of us." He added that questions pertaining to the African Diaspora "are now becoming resonant of other experiences. I’m not trying deliberately to go for a bigger canvas or message; it’s something that emerged."

True to his post-colonial interests, Akomfrah's work blurs and re-imagines the distinction between video art and cinema. While his conceptual rigor and semantic preoccupations suit the immersive spaces of video art/installation, his lyricism calls for the scope of the big screen.

This article is related to: Critic's Notebook, Reviews, John Akomfrah, Hauntologies







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