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John Akomfrah RA, Mnemosyne

Mnemosyne, 2010

John Akomfrah RA (b. 1957)

RA Collection: Art

The title of this film - Mnemosyne - refers to the mother of the Nine Muses who is also the personification of memory in Greek mythology. The film is also known as 'The Nine Muses' and features a tone poem composed of verses named after Mnemosyne and her daughters: Tragedy (Melpomene), History (Clio), Music (Euterpe), Sacred Song (Polyhymnia), Astronomy (Urania), Comedy (Thalia), Erotic Love (Erato), Dance (Terpsichore) and Epic Poetry (Calliope).

John Akomfrah created the film for the BBC/Arts Council 'Made in England' project, using archival material to retell the experience of post-war immigrants to the UK. Mnemosyne focuses on the West Midlands between 1960 and the 1980s with archival images punctuated by scenes of a frozen wasteland.

The film also features 'portraits of Birmingham, narrative and literary voices' alongside a dub-infused soundtrack. The voiceover features a series of quotations from literary texts including Homer, Milton, Dante, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Joyce and Beckett all read by different actors with a variety of accents. The master text is from Homer's Odyssey, the story of Odysseus' 10 year journey to return home from the Trojan war, which is interweaved with images of migrants disembarking from ships.

In an interview on Mnemosyne in the Guardian (12 January 2012) Akomfrah stated: ‘It's important to read images in the archive for their ambiguity and open-endedness...Migrants were often filmed in relation to debates about crime or social problems, so that's how they get fixed in official memory. But that Caribbean woman standing in a 60s factory isn't thinking about how she's a migrant or a burden on the British state; she's as likely to be thinking about what she's going to eat that evening or about her lover.’

Object details

Object type
Moving Image
Copyright owner
Royal Academy of Arts
Object number
Diploma Work given by John Akomfrah RA accepted November 2019
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