John Akomfrah RA on his artistic roots, upcoming London show, and being left-handed

Published 30 December 2020

Newly elected Royal Academician, John Akomfrah, has been exploring Black British life since the ‘80s. He tells us about being slammed in the press by Salman Rushdie and his love of Virginia Woolf.

  • Imogen Greenhalgh is Deputy Editor of RA Magazine.

  • He’s been figuring out what ‘Black British’ could mean since 1982

    John Akomfrah RA started out as a member of the pioneering Black Audio Film Collective, founded in London with six fellow fine art and sociology students in 1982. Their aim was to “figure out what the term ‘Black British’ could mean” through installations, performance and film, Akomfrah explains. “Funnily enough, one space we ended up working in a lot was television, which wasn’t on our agenda.”

    When the group disbanded in 1998, he and two fellow members, Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, set up Smoking Dogs Films, a production company they still collaborate under today. “We are almost interchangeable now, though our interests and skillsets diverge.”

  • Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah RA, The Last Angel of History

    Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah RA, The Last Angel of History, 1995.

    single channel colour video, sound. 45 minutes 7 seconds. © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

  • His work isn’t exclusively shown in galleries or museums

    Akomfrah has a reputation both for his lyrical films and politically driven documentaries, shown on television, in cinemas and in art galleries and museums. Each setting, he explains, comes with its own specific set of “aesthetic or formal strategies”. But the key difference is one of authorship. “Outside the gallery, you share authorship – in TV, the voice of the commissioning editors and executive producers is as important to shaping the finished narrative as your own. With gallery work, the buck stops with you.”

  • His love of art began at Tate

    Born in Accra, Ghana in 1957, Akomfrah moved to London aged four, after his family gained political asylum. In his teens he started going to the Tate on weekends to figure out why looking at a Rothko felt different to admiring a Constable. “With Constable, the whole point seemed to be lulling you into not seeing the gaps, the lines. But over the years, I’ve become more attracted to what I’d call the vestiges of modernism, the works that foreground the joins, whether that’s a Rothko or a Turner. They ask a few more questions, I think.”

  • John Akomfrah RA , Still from Precarity

    John Akomfrah RA, Still from Precarity, 2017.

    Three channel HD colour video installation, 46 minutes 3 seconds, 7.1 sound. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

  • His mum gave him his best piece of advice

    “I’m left-handed, and as a kid, people would always try to get me to change,” he says. “My mum would encourage me back to being myself. She’d say, ‘This is how you write, that’s fine, learn to live with it.’ That was the ambience generally in our house – live with your mistakes. It was a profound insight into making stuff, because your mistakes, your errings, your detours, become your signature.”

  • Live with your mistakes... because your mistakes, your errings, your detours, become your signature.

    John Akomfrah RA

  • His ‘mistakes’ have helped to make his name

    Black Audio Film Collective’s breakout work was Handsworth Songs (1986; below), a filmic portrait directed by Akomfrah of racial unrest and police brutality in Handsworth, near Birmingham. Today considered a landmark of Black British film, Akomfrah recalls it was slammed by some at the time. “Salman Rushdie hammered us,” he chuckles.

    The group’s approach, cutting together footage filmed in Handsworth with archival material and sound to create non-linear sequences, vexed critics for its lack of coherence. “The thing then was to be Wagnerian in your construction of narrative, to make it seamless and flowing,” he says, but their decision to layer and juxtapose new and historical material, sometimes to cacophonous effect, was deliberate.

    “If someone had said to us then, ‘Tell me why young Black people are rioting,’ you couldn’t have given only one reason. It was the beginning of trying to get people used to that, to the notion of multiplicity which we’d all grown up with. When you’re a hyphen figure – culturally made up of different elements – you’ve had to become comfortable with the idea of fragments, that discrete elements overlap.”

  • Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah RA, Handsworth Songs

    Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah RA, Handsworth Songs, 1986.

    Single channel 16mm colour film transferred to video, sound. 58 minutes 33 seconds. © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery.

  • He discovered Virginia Woolf in a women’s studies class

    “People never really ask about my literary influences, but Woolf has as much to do with the evolution of my work as anything else, to be honest.” Alongside cinematic and theoretical heroes, ranging from Andrei Tarkovsky to Stuart Hall, Woolf has proved a “constant” for Akomfrah.

    He discovered her work at the age of 18, in a women’s studies class in the 1970s – one of the first such courses in the country. “My father died when I was little, so I was aware early on of the power imbalances in our society. Anyone is when they grow up in a household with just a mum, because you’re aware of how they are treated. Woolf taught me it was not random. That it was codified.”

  • His next show reflects on Black Lives Matter

    Akomfrah has long grappled with questions of state violence, environmental destruction and racial injustice through his art and activism. These issues are at the fore in his forthcoming show at Lisson Gallery, with the international Black Lives Matter protests at the centre. New works include a three-screen video work which features footage shot over the past six months by collaborators around the world, an exercise in “de-centred authorship”, as he puts it. ‘Part of the trick to my work is learning to listen, to people, events, things, noises, moments,’ he says. “Learning to be attuned to transformations happening around you and in your environment.”

    From the Winter 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA. John Akomfrah: The Unintended Beauty of Disaster runs from 12 January – 7 March 2021 at the Lisson Gallery, London.

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