PRINT February 2016


John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 48 minutes. Installation view, Central Pavilion, Venice, 2015. From the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo: Cristiano Corte. © Smoking Dogs Films.

WATER PERMEATES the recent film installations of John Akomfrah. Productions such as Vertigo Sea, 2015, Tropikos, and Auto da Fé, both 2016, are replete with shots of rippling waves, crashing surf, winding rivers, and babbling creeks, intermixed with images of lakes, inlets, bays, lochs, and oceans, whose shores retain their natural, undeveloped topographies. Clips featuring flowing liquid, the currents of which parallel the sinuous movement of film through a camera, are mixed with theatrically staged tableaux or archival footage, music, and other sounds to craft intense siren songs whose splendor, terror, and magic beckon the spectator.

Sound, like water, moves in waves. It is also in perpetual flux; it needs motion in order to exist. The sonic has a physicality and a point of view. In Akomfrah’s work, sound also often has a disruptive function in its relation to the visual. Cinematic imagery is molecular: It operates according to a structure of singularization. One scene follows another; one cut, then the next. But, for Akomfrah, sound complexifies that logic; its waves reject the static elements, the particulars, making plain that stability is a myth and that the essence of life is movement. In this sense, sound and water parallel time and memory, both of which, like quicksilver in the palm of one’s hand, are impossible to grasp.

In Akomfrah’s new productions, the ocean functions as a reservoir of memory, a place where stories of the past, present, and future are suspended and preserved. Yet access to these narratives can only be attained indirectly: “Oblique Tales on the Aquatic Sublime,” reads the subtitle of Vertigo Sea, a highlight of last year’s Venice Biennale. Akomfrah’s stories are about migrations across time and space, about the currents and winds that transport humans and goods across latitudes and longitudes. Some have traveled to these places of their own free will; many others have not. But they all share the experience of diaspora, of dispersion—often over water—from one land to another.

The psychic condition of migrancy provides a glimpse into the complex dynamic of identity. The effort the migrant must make to fit into his or her new culture largely mimics the universal process of acquiring a sense of self. Identity is impossible without memory. An essential prerequisite to being, it acts as a powerful counterbalance, a ballast, to the turbulence of dislocation. But there are very few tangible memorials to center the diasporic subject. In their absence, the migrant is left to conjure up specters of things past.

Akomfrah’s films summon ghosts—animating them, giving voice to their songs and unspeakable stories. Tropikos is staged in the mid-1500s, during the early period of British imperial exploration and conquest. The principal setting is Plymouth Sound, from which many expeditions were launched (other sequences take place in sixteenth-century Guinea and Sierra Leone), and the many scenes of stately life there are punctuated by sequences shot on a boat laden with products from abroad slowly making its way up the River Tamar. New World staples such as corn, potatoes, and beans are arranged alongside a display of tropical fruit, totem carvings, precious stones, and two indigenously clad African men, evidently brought back to be trafficked and exhibited like the other foreign merchandise. Characters in period costumes of imported velvet and silk, stitched in gold thread and embedded with pearls and sparkling gems, bespeak the opulence of the affluent in Elizabethan England; their garb is testament to the way exotic treasures of all kinds were incorporated into the culture.

In contrast to the colorful costumes, the gray stone edifices that provide the architectural support for empire are anachronistic. Some are in total ruin; others in various states of disrepair. A cast-iron railing in an arch bears the date 1862, a twentieth-century cement jetty marks the ebb and flow of tides, modern buildings line the riverbank, and a nautical sign reads SPEED LIMIT 10 KNOTS. Toward the end of the piece, the camera focuses on a black figure, now in Elizabethan costume, who looks out across the sound. His gaze spans more than four hundred years, as the contemporary is brought together, uncomfortably, with a past built on plundered goods and slavery. A twenty-first-century battleship cruises slowly by.

Sixteenth-century Plymouth is thus presented as a conduit to modern Britain. It is a contact zone between the local and the global, the old and the new; a crossroads where white matrons first exchanged glances with black slaves and smartly dressed white men coupled with beautiful African women. Just as corn, potatoes, and other previously unknown goods soon became staples of the European diet, so too were the people brought back from the far reaches of the empire forced to take root in new environments. Tropikos touches on the moment when these new historical conditions produced their first subjects.

In Auto da Fé, Akomfrah continues his long-standing investigation of the transmutations brought about by relocation. The installation elaborates on a series of scenes projected onto two fifteen-foot-wide screens. The focus is Barbados. Taking up the cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s self-identification as part Portuguese Jew in his documentary film The Stuart Hall Project (2013), Akomfrah evokes a little-known mid-seventeenth-century event: the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Brazil during the Inquisition and their consequent dispersion throughout the West Indies. The circuits of migration, like the oceans in which they run, are thus vast: from Europe and Africa to South America and the Caribbean, and sometimes, as Hall’s biography attests, back to Europe. “If the notion of the Western is now inherently unstable,” Akomfrah has argued, “then so are its ‘pure opposites.’ They are no less ‘unsullied’ and ‘uncontaminated’ by this instability.” Probing the way pure terms are historically constituted is crucial to his project. Categories, from this perspective, are relational; terms such as white or black are comprehensible only if one determines what the other constitutes as well. Akomfrah’s films fly in the face of Western and non-Western perspectives. They transcend dualistic understandings that posit a clear and principled split between the local and the global and construct independent accounts of each.

A powerful chapter of Auto da Fé features six figures, two men and four women, who, with the exception of one who wears a sari, are clothed in mid-twentieth-century semiformal Western attire. The figures glide like ghosts through the gray stone remnants of an abandoned town. The effect is that of a slow-moving tableau, a theater piece staged in a now-desolate outpost. The solid stone structures we see—a ruined two-story building and a relatively large church—suggest that the site may once have been a relatively prosperous settlement, perhaps a plantation.

At one point the camera pans slowly across the scene, capturing the characters looking downward into their open palms as if they are reading from books. In a land with few memorials, where official history is narrated from the perspective of the colonizers, local accounts remain oral and are rarely recorded. One important exception to this is the writings of George Lamming, who, while working in England in the 1950s, penned several volumes that articulate the stress of everyday life in mid-twentieth-century Barbados and the utopian hopes many harbored for a better future on the mainland. His memories lay bare the stitches of the quotidian and present the tapestry of colonial experience in Barbados as a series of uneven patches. But would these stories have been written had Lamming not relocated to England? Was it not his own migration to an environment rife with records, memorials, and archives that prompted him to narrativize his memories of life in the colony?

The call of a horn boldly announcing the imminent departure of a transatlantic steamer pierces the sound track of Auto da Fé at regular intervals. Lamming, like Hall, moved abroad in the aftermath of World War II, a time of mass global migration. Today, too, many people are on the move. However, their passage is anything but fluid. Not just border controls, but also patrol boats, aerial surveillance, and barricades of all kinds have been mobilized to block their movement. Meanwhile, the human casualties have been enormous. Corpses have been found piled up in trucks, rotting in deserts, and washed up on beaches, while the “lucky few” have been placed in holding camps from which they may well be deported.

The opening of Vertigo Sea brings this nightmare into harsh relief. Over the roar of waves and against a backdrop of pounding surf projected on three large screens, a news broadcast reports that more people drowned fleeing their homelands for Europe this past year than ever before. Another voice cuts in, desperately pleading, “Jesus save me, Jesus save me.” Vertigo Sea touches on these contemporary horrors, connecting them to earlier moments of modernity when people lost their lives at sea. As do Tropikos and Auto da Fé, Vertigo Sea symbolizes the ocean as an intermediate zone between the past and the present, the particular and the general, the local and the global, and as an oblique site of memory for the modern diasporic subject. But even more than in these other projects, the ocean in Vertigo Sea serves as a requiem for the cruelty of modernity—a watery memorial for all those whose pasts were either lost, forgotten, or taken from them, in the process of migration.

Tropikos and Auto da Fé are on view at Lisson Gallery, London, through Mar. 12, in a solo exhibition of recent work by John Akomfrah. Vertigo Sea is currently installed at the Arnolfini in Bristol, UK, through Apr. 10.

A professor of film and media arts at Temple University in Philadelphia, Nora M. Alter is coeditor, with Timothy Corrigan, of Essays on the Essay Film, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.