John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah, Expeditions 1 – Signs of Empire, 1983, single-channel 35-mm color Ektachrome slides transferred to video, color, sound, 26 minutes. Courtesy Lisson Gallery. © Smoking Dogs Films.

The London-based artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah has three solo exhibitions on view in the United States this summer: “Signs of Empire,” his largest US survey to date, is at the New Museum in New York through September 2, 2018; “Sublime Seas” is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through September 16, 2018; and “Precarity” is at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina, until September 2, 2018. Below, Akomfrah discusses his embrace of collage and the digital, and the timely thread of migration that runs throughout his work.

THE STRANGE THING about having three shows up at the same time in the US is that it’s something I dreamed of. This was the grand narrative that I wanted to hit at some point. Now that I have, I’m slightly overwhelmed by it because it’s quite hard work. It’s challenging, because you have to learn different lessons in different places about how things work, the nature of spaces, the cities, and so on. But it’s great.

It’s also interesting to be in the US at this particular moment of the migration crisis. Advancing industrial worlds seem to have a big problem with the three languages of migration, and this is something we really need to get right. Generally, one language is acknowledged in secret, and the other is disavowed. The first is the necessity of migration. It is absolutely critical. I’m in New York now, and literally everywhere I look, in every crevice of industrial activity, there’s a migrant working away—usually unacknowledged. So, it seems much of the anti-immigration rhetoric sits at odds with the reality of most advanced industrial societies. They need migrants.

Another thing that is not acknowledged is that essentially you have certain countries that do all the incubation. Mothers have children in these countries, they feed them, the state educates them, and just when these now-adults are ready to offer something back, they head off to the industrial world. The advanced industrial world says, “Thank you very much,” but it also usually despises them, while taking all of these enormous resources from these countries. This needs to be acknowledged, and yet increasingly in the way in which the Trumps of the world talk, it’s as if it isn’t.

But the second language—which is more important for me, because it’s the one that is least understood—is the utopian dimension of migration. No one that I’ve ever met leaves anywhere, whether it’s Bolivia or Ghana, and says to him- or herself, “You know what, I’m going to go to Europe and North America, and when I get there I’m going to be a problem. I’m going to cause problems, and I’ll be a criminal and feed off the state.” Nobody does that. Everyone leaves with the idea that at the very least they’ll better themselves. So, when they don’t or can’t do that, that’s not entirely their fault. When they hit the ruts, something has gone wrong in the contract, if you like, between them and the host society. But nobody acknowledges it. It’s inevitably always assumed in most right-wing discourses about immigration that there is no utopian dimension. In fact, if anything, there’s a dystopian dimension—people migrate to spread disease and unemployment, and so on. When you look at what’s happening at the US borders at the moment, that’s the language that’s overdetermining everything—essentially, “these people are trouble.”

I’ve always had a fondness for collage, for forcing impossible unions, and for trying to somehow get what feels like—before you try putting them together—discordant tones, colors, and images to engage in a conversation. Whether it’s in a single frame, as in the “Signs of Empire” series, or across three channels, the approach is still the same. I found that guarantees an interesting narrative. Yes, it robs each element of its absolute authority, but it also has the advantage of denying its alterity. Everyone and everything—from human beings to objects—demand that they be respected in their singularity. But you logically can’t because this is not a Paracelsian universe in which everything is self-contained. Things do have relation. The denial of agency is one way in which the relation can be established.

But I don’t believe in forcing these relations in any dictatorial way. It’s not like me saying to a series of images of photographs of Stuart Hall, “You need to talk to landscape because otherwise you’re not going to be able to exist.” Rather, I’m putting on the table a compelling offer to both of them—which is that you have the possibility of revival, literally, or oblivion. When that is put to narratives, objects, or discourses, they usually agree, because who wants to be outside of thought and outside of language? Everything and everybody want to be unique, but first and foremost they want to exist.

I’ve noticed that a number of younger artists now speak in a utopian way about film. I don’t want to deny them that rite of passage. It’s necessary. But it wasn’t mine. In the independent film world that we emerged out of in the 1970s, there was already a hierarchy of importance attached to who could use film and in what way. It wasn’t an ideal medium. So, when I shot anything on 16 mm, or even 35 mm, and then sent it to Technicolor, I had to wait for the commercial rushes that were being processed by Ridley Scott to be done first.

I never had a romantic attachment to film, though I recognize its value. When I met my cinematographer Dewald Aukema, it became clear to both of us that we were two people who had to work in video because that was what we could afford, and it was what gave us freedom. When HD reared its head, we were ready for it because we knew what it meant. We knew the stretch that we could enforce on it and what would then be the result of that demand. In a way, I think we went a little bit over the top in our declarations of what it meant. But if you ask me now, twenty years later, whether I would go the same way to the digital—I would. The digital has helped us enormously to fine-tune what we do. It quite simply allowed us to do what we wanted to. I still salute that and think it’s important.