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

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

“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
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.

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Anything but outdated, the cultural discourse Akomfrah forwarded throughout his career has now grown more relevant as the stateless and rootless nature of the Diaspora has come to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.

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.

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.

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