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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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His new exhibition -- composed by different sets -- works as a sort of spectral compendium to the inner mechanics of his practice, an illuminated passageway through the directors that influenced his work and the audio-visual artifacts that marked his consciousness. In "Psyche" -- a looping three-channel video installation -- assorted costume-dramas ("Wistanley," "Borderline," "Que Viva Mexico!" and others) are assembled and fragmented, thus altering the perception of time and montage.

Akomfrah continues to explore the liminal zone between historical delineation and fictional intervention on reality.

By splicing the same sequence across three screens but timing each one of them differently, Akomfrah gives the impression that the same scene is being filmed from three different angles. By displaying his cinematic influences (the films will also be screened in their entirety in a separate series), the artist makes sure to expose the multiplicity of perspectives and interpretations each viewing can provide. "Peripeteia" is Akomfrah's singular take on a costume drama that draws inspiration from two drawings by the sixteenth century painter Albrecht Durer, allegedly found in Yorkshire (where the film is shot), and considered to be among the earliest representation of black people in western art.

The film gives life -- by means of fictional re-enactment -– to these two story-less characters lost in the winds of history, caught up in the cold mist of an immemorial countryside, their feelings frozen in time by a merciless gale. The absence of memories and the impossibility of recovering these stories is rendered with a sense of loss and estrangement that's predominantly sensorial. Forgotten from the annals of western civilization, their silence is broken only by archival images of tribes, possible ancestors of an undocumented era.

Taking a more personal approach, "The Call of Mist – Redux" is an updated version a work Akomfrah did for the BBC in 1998 to commemorate his late mother. Once again loss and disappearance come to the creative fore of his reflections. And in another piece related to death, the artist pays homage to the soundscapes of Andrei Tarkovsky's cinema in "At the Graveside of Tarkovsky," a collection of soundtracks from the Russian filmmaker's films that the artist complements with suggestive landscapes he personally shot.

With "Hauntologies," Akomfrah continues to explore the liminal zone between historical delineation and fictional intervention on reality. Chasing the ghosts of history through our collective subconscious, his work keeps opening portals into historical knowledge while resisting univocal representations of race and conflicts. He speaks for everyone.

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







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