Currently on view at the New Museum, artist John Akomfrah brings a a selection of his challenging, ever-shifting video works, united under the fitting exhibition title Signs of Empire. The Ghana-born British artist’s work has long moved between various sites and imageries dwelling on power and colonialism, always framing these cultural struggles along different cultural faultlines and frameworks.
Akomfrah’s work initially came to prominence in the early 1980s as part of Black Audio Film Collective, a group of seven artists founded in 1982 in response to the 1981 Brixton riots. The collective produced a number of films notable for their mix of archival and found footage, interviews and realist depictions of contemporary England, and layered sound collages. Marking a uniquely deep and expansive perspective on the act of politically engaged filmmaking and research, Akomfrah’s work has only continued to evolve and shift, marking him as one of the most influential artists of the past 40 years in his medium. The show at the New Museum marks this influence with a small but powerful selection of videos, spanning both his collaborative work and that of his own solo works.
At the center of the exhibition is Akomfrah’s celebrated three-screen video installation Vertigo Sea (2015), a work that premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and which now makes its first New York debut at this show. Presenting the ocean as a multi-layered historical, cultural and environmental force, the artist strings together a series of iconographies and threads, spanning the history of the global slave trade, current conditions of migration and climate change, and varied explorations of the ocean throughout the history of music, art and literature. What emerges is a vision of a space and time that moves far beyond an easy single reading or framing, allowing the use and abuse of unclaimed space for the purposes of capitalist exploitation and violence. Taking the broad expanse of the ocean as an almost unbounded frame, Akomfrah’s work allows a perspective on this open space as one which reflects the dynamics of modern capitalism.
The exhibition also includes The Unfinished Conversation (2012), Akomfrah’s complex reflection on the life and ideas of cultural theorist Stuart Hall; Expeditions One: Signs of Empire(1983), the first work produced by Black Audio Film Collective; and a new version of Akomfrah’s Transfigured Night (2013/2018), a two-channel work looking at the relationship between the US and postcolonial African history. Throughout, similar framings of spaces and the struggles that mark them take the center stage, always worked through with a patience and attention to detail that has defined Akomfrah’s work throughout his career. The artist makes the case for just what deep research is capable, uncovering phenomena and events that showcase the state of modernity in all of its complex meanings.
The show closes September 2nd.
— D. Creahan
John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire [Exhibition Site]