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John Akomfrah RA is having a moment. In 2023 he was knighted in recognition of his contribution to the arts, and soon after it was announced that he will represent Great Britain at the 2024 Venice Biennale. In 2023, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn and National Museum of African Art will host major exhibitions of his work. Akomfrah is a widely respected artist and filmmaker, whose works investigate memory, post-colonialism, temporality, and aesthetics and often explore the experiences of migrant diasporas globally. He was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, with whom he still collaborates today.
Akomfrah joined Hirshhorn associate curator Marina Isgro and African Art senior curator Karen Milbourne in conversation to discuss the role of art in addressing social and political crises—from the climate crisis, as addressed in Purple, to the worldwide reckoning with racism and the COVID pandemic, as explored in Five Murmurations, as well as what it means to have exhibitions in these two institutions.
The program was hosted on the occasion of the exhibition of Akomfrah’s monumental video work Purple at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the forthcoming opening of Five Murmurations at the National Museum of African Art in Fall 2023.
WANT MORE? Check out these other resources to explore John Akomfrah and his work.
- John Akomfrah: Purple (2017) at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, on view through January 2024
- John Akomfrah’s Five Murmurations (2021) at the National Museum of African Art, on view October 2023 through 2024
- Twilight City preceded by A Touch of the Tar Brush and Three Songs on Pain, Time, and Light as part of Burning Illusions: British Film and Thatcherism at the National Gallery of Art
ABOUT THE ARTIST
John Akomfrah is a respected artist and filmmaker, whose works are characterized by their investigations into memory, post-colonialism, temporality and aesthetics and often explore the experiences of migrant diasporas globally. Akomfrah was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, with whom he still collaborates today. Their first film, Handsworth Songs (1986), explored events surrounding the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a charged combination of archive footage, still photos, newly shot material and newsreel. The film won several international prizes and established a multi-layered visual style that has become a recognisable motif of Akomfrah’s practice. Other works include the three-screen installation The Unfinished Conversation (2012), a moving portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s life and work; Peripeteia (2012), an imagined drama visualising the lives of individuals included in two 16th century portraits by Albrecht Dürer, and Mnemosyne (2010) which exposes experiences of migrants in the UK, questioning the notion of Britain as a promised land by revealing the realities of economic hardship and casual racism. In 2015, Akomfrah premiered his three-screen film installation Vertigo Sea (2015), which explores what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls “the sublime seas.” Fusing archival material, readings from classical sources and newly shot footage, Akomfrah’s piece focuses on the disorder and cruelty of the whaling industry and juxtaposes it with scenes of many generations of migrants making epic crossings of the ocean for a better life. In 2017, Akomfrah presented his largest film installation to date, Purple (2017), at the Barbican in London, co-commissioned by Bildmuseet Umeå, Sweden, TBA21—Academy, The Institute of Contemporary Art/ Boston, Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon and Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow. The six-channel video installation addresses climate change, human communities and wilderness. In 2019, on the occasion of his participation at the first Ghana Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, he presented Four Nocturnes (2019), a three-channel piece that reflects on the complex intertwined relationship between humanity’s destruction of the natural world and our destruction of ourselves. More recently, in Five Murmurations (2021), he documented the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice protests. Earlier this year, Akomfrah was knighted as part of the 2023 New Years Honours, and it was announced that he will represent Great Britain at the 2024 Venice Biennale.
Image: Courtesy of Lisson Gallery and the artist.