New York

John Akomfrah, The Airport, 2016, three-channel HD video installation, color, sound, 53 minutes.

John Akomfrah, The Airport, 2016, three-channel HD video installation, color, sound, 53 minutes.

John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah, The Airport, 2016, three-channel HD video installation, color, sound, 53 minutes.

In 1982, Ghana-born, London-based artist John Akomfrah cofounded the Black Audio Film Collective with fellow students at Portsmouth Polytechnic, aiming to kick-start a specifically black culture of politically and theoretically attuned moving-image work in the UK. The group’s landmark 1986 film Handsworth Songs, which Akomfrah directed, employs a characteristic mix of broadcast news footage, still photography, and audio montage to deconstruct the riots that had taken place in Birmingham, UK, and London the previous year. BAFC disbanded in 1998, but Akomfrah has continued to collaborate with former members Lina Gopaul and David Lawson in addition to producing his own work for a variety of contexts. His output is typically focused on themes of migration and displacement, especially that of the African diaspora in Europe and the United States.

While still featuring sound from television and radio broadcasts, the two video installations that formed the main part of Akomfrah’s first major US exhibition depart from their maker’s established methodology by being composed entirely of original footage. And what footage. There’s a picturesque lushness to the imagery and sound design of The Airport and Auto Da Fé (both 2016) that keeps one watching and listening in spite of the works’ slow-moving, elliptical narratives and extended running times. (The two works are fifty-three minutes long and just over forty minutes long, respectively.) The artist makes practiced use of multiple channels—The Airport is spread over three screens; Auto Da Fé two—to immerse the viewer in contemporary settings populated by historical or otherwise incongruous characters. And while there’s a generically portentous tone to Akomfrah’s accompanying music, and a few too many picture-perfect shots of silhouetted figures, the overall impression was undeniably striking.

The Airport is a poetic meditation on Greek history in which the titular location, while in reality close to Athens, appears as a kind of interzone, abandoned and decaying. An astronaut, face obscured behind a visor, looks on as various characters traverse the otherwise deserted site en route to and from elsewhere in the country and other points in time. Among them are an old man in a tuxedo, a succession of figures lugging bags and suitcases, and a man in a gorilla costume. The last, in conjunction with the video’s expansive compositions and nonlinear chronology, is a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), while the astronaut, plodding around the ruined location, evokes J. G. Ballard’s nostalgia for an already exhausted vision of the future. All movement is slowed, the characters stunned and haunted by the weight of their country’s past tragedies.

Auto Da Fé has a similar look and feel—characters are distributed across scenes like the petrified château guests in Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), enacting a cryptic dance of stylized gesture and pose. The narrative traces eight instances of historical migration, from the movement of Sephardic Jews from Catholic Brazil to Barbados in 1654 to contemporary exoduses from Mali and Iraq. As in The Airport, clear incident is sidelined in favor of mournful atmosphere, with traumatized individuals standing in for the experience of millions. Again there are one or two uncomfortably hackneyed moments (dolls washed ashore), and the glacial pace can be a test. But against the worrisome backdrop of Brexit in Europe and election-year fearmongering in this country, there’s no denying the continued pertinence of Akomfrah’s interests. Any attempt, however earnest or aestheticized, to situate these phenomena within a broader context now feels vital.

Michael Wilson