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Moving images: Film maverick John Akomfrah's screen art

12 January 2016

John Akomfrah came to prominence with his directorial debut Handsworth Songs, which examined the fallout from the 1985 riots in Birmingham and established his multi-layered visual style. The Ghana-born director's latest work, Vertigo Sea, is a three-screen installation fusing archive, readings from classical sources and footage shot on Skye, in Norway and the Faroe Islands. The film looks at the whaling industry as well as epic ocean crossings by migrants in search of a better life, and is one of a number of Akomfrah works showing at new exhibitions in Bristol and London. Ahead of these shows, WILLIAM COOK met Akomfrah at his studio in London's East End.

John Akomfrah

If your idea of a good movie is a Hollywood blockbuster, British filmmaker John Akomfrah will make you think again. His dreamlike films don’t obey the conventions of commercial cinema. They aren’t tied to linear storylines. The screen is his canvas, the camera his paintbrush. Maybe that’s why his films are often shown in galleries. They feel closer to fine art.

Meeting Akomfrah face to face, you’d never guess he’s in his late fifties. He exudes the energy of someone half his age. ‘I’m a Black-British figure,’ he says. ‘Both things are very important. I’m from this place, I’m formed by this place.’ And that place, more than anywhere, is London.

I’m a Black-British figure. Both things are very important. I’m from this place, I’m formed by this place
John Akomfrah

We meet in his warehouse studio in Dalston, in London’s East End. It’s rough and ready, post-industrial. It feels like the right setting for his work.

This month two of Britain’s best galleries are showing several of Akomfrah’s most recent films. If you’ve never seen his work before, a visit to London’s Lisson Gallery or the Arnolfini in Bristol will be a revelation.

His films are neither dramas nor documentaries. They inhabit a surreal no man’s land, midway between fact and fiction. You may feel confused at first, but be patient. Within a few minutes, his hypnotic imagery will draw you in.

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015 | Three channel video installation | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah - Vertigo Sea, 2015

Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol 16 Jan - 10 April, Smoking Dogs Films; courtesy Lisson Gallery

Akomfrah’s films explore all sorts of subjects, but their common theme is ethnicity. He was born in Ghana in 1957, and came to Britain when he was four.

Bob Marley seemed, with that band [The Wailers] to embody a certain kind of outlaw quality that was proud of its outsider status, in a way you hadn’t seen before
John Akomfrah

His British upbringing was informed by the colour of his skin – not so much the way he felt, but the way that he was treated. ‘As you meet other kids of colour your own age, you realise they’re undergoing the same experience.’

Ironically, his eureka moment wasn’t cinematic, but musical. ‘Seeing Bob Marley on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1972 made a huge difference,’ he recalls. ‘He seemed, with that band [The Wailers] to embody a certain kind of outlaw quality that was proud of its outsider status, in a way you hadn’t seen before.’

This was a world away from the music he’d grown up with. This wasn’t showbiz, this was protest. ‘Marley was an example of a trend, and that trend became a soundtrack for a life.’

Akomfrah went to school in London and studied sociology at Portsmouth Polytechnic. After college, he teamed up with several likeminded artists in a radical ensemble called the Black Audio Film Collective.

Their breakthrough film was Handsworth Songs, a passionate response to the so-called race riots in London and Birmingham in the 1980s. The mainstream media presented a stereotypical image of these rioters. The Black Audio Film Collective gave these dispossessed people a voice.

Film Mavericks: John Akomfrah

British Film Mavericks: John Akomfrah

Danny Leigh profiles the director of experimental documentary Handsworth Songs.

The Stuart Hall Project, John Akomfrah | Smoking Dogs Films, 2013
John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015 | Three channel video installation | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Akomfrah’s latest film, Vertigo Sea, shows how far he’s come since then. His filmmaking has lost none of its raw power, but it’s become more abstract and poetic.

He lets you draw your own conclusions, but the central message is clear. In Vertigo Sea, he examines the controversial issue of migration. As a migrant himself, he felt an ethical responsibility to remind us that today’s migrants aren’t people from another planet.

‘We’ve all heard rent-a-gob pundits calling migrants cockroaches,’ he tells me. ‘There was a need to make a broad human statement about similarities - where we’ve come from and where we’re going.’

We were all migrants, once upon a time.

Handsworth Songs, John Akomfrah | Black Audio Film Collective, 1986
John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Akomfrah has never followed a strictly chronological approach to filmmaking, but lately he’s adopted an even more impressionistic style. This is heightened by his use of diptychs and triptychs – two or three films running on the same screen, side by side.

I don’t want to be The Rolling Stones or The Beatles. I want to be The Clash!
John Akomfrah

‘The triptych, as a form, is one of reflection and open-endedness,’ he explains. ‘You can hit people with a whole range of stuff.’ It’s more like a collage than a conventional feature film.

Like a rapper sampling and remixing riffs from other records, Akomfrah draws on a huge range of archive material for his films. He dovetails vintage newsreel with quotations from the classics. The connections he makes are startling.

His film The Nine Muses marries Homer’s Odyssey with footage of West Indian immigrants in postwar Britain. His cultural references range from Shakespeare to funk godfather George Clinton.

The Nine Muses, John Akomfrah | Smoking Dogs Films, 2010

For Black Britons growing up today, Akomfrah believes life is better. ‘It’s unquestionably the case that things have improved – they couldn’t be any worse!’

Yet to create an equal multiracial society requires constant vigilance. ‘It took a cast of thousands who were willing to put up with being spat at,’ he says. ‘It’s worth remembering that’s what it took.’

Akomfrah’s films have played a significant part in this process. By putting black people centre stage, in the cinema and the gallery, he’s taught a generation of Britons, black and white, that the black experience is central to British culture.

And along the way he created a new style of moviemaking, which owes as much to Punk as it does to Bob Marley and The Wailers. ‘I don’t want to be The Rolling Stones or The Beatles,’ he says. ‘I want to be The Clash!’

John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea is at Arnolfini in Bristol from 16 January to 10 April, and John Akomfrah is at Lisson Gallery in London from 22 January to 12 March 2016.

John Akomfrah on the BBC

Theatre & Refugees season

A special season of short films and features curated by Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director of London's Royal Court Theatre, shining a spotlight on theatre within refugee, migrant and asylum-seeking communities.

John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016 | Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

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