John Akomfrah

1957, Ghana ; lives and works in London


English artist, director, writer and screenwriter John Akomfrah’s film works are regarded as among the most rigorous reflections about the culture of the black diaspora both in England and in the world. His work first came to the fore with the Black Audio Film Collective (1982–1998), a group of which he was a founder member, created in response to the climate of racism and police brutality which came to light during the 1981 Brixton riots. That group of young English people, black and hailing from various diasporas, helped to put new voices on the map in English film, and re-think the documentary by using a poetic tone and editing experiments combining archives, interviews and sound collages, all overlaid.
The film Mnemosyne (2010), named after the Greek goddess of memory, is no exception to J. Akomfrah’s aesthetic engagement. The archival images and sound borrowed from the BBC are intermingled with many different narratives and a hypnotic soundtrack. Divided into nine sections, each one named after the nine muses, daughters of Mnemosyne, the film relies on the national television archives to retrace the experiences of postwar immigrants. In it we see scenes of families arriving from the Caribbean Commonwealth, Asian men working in blast furnaces, and school benches… all interspersed with views made by the artist in a frozen landscape. Here, a silent witness, his face wrapped up, seems to be looking at the contrast between the “promised land” status of England and the reality of this counter-map of the postwar industrial society and its racialized players. It is incidentally words from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, written in 1667, which ring out in the film’s introduction. Here, the subtitles are borrowed from Chateaubriand, whose romantic soft spot for exotic colonial sagas partly explains this translation (1836). While the jobs which once attracted these families are disappearing, these images seem inevitably to connect global warming with the anxiousness and populism being created by the ongoing transition towards a post-industrial society. Destruction of the environment and the racism emanating from the same ways of living in the world, colonizing and exploiting it, the better to extract anything of value from it.
With the support of Fluxus Art Projects

Mnemosyne, 2010

Video installation (45’). Film starts at: 14:00, 15:00, 16:00, 17:00

Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery, London.
With the support of Fluxus Art Projects.