John Akomfrah: The acclaimed political film-maker and artist whose work deals with racial identity and immigration

Film artist John Akomfrah has long dealt with migration – and now his work has terrible resonance, as he tells Hettie Judah

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The Independent Culture

If you’ve ever experienced its approach, drowning is a very strange way to go,” says John Akomfrah across a cotton-topped table laid with coffee and biscuits in his busy Dalston studio. “You know at some point that it calls for your complicity – you have to yield to the inevitability of taking the water into your lungs that will kill you.”

The terror of death by water drifts through the artist and film-maker’s seductive and harrowing Vertigo Sea (2015), bubbling as a constant threat beneath footage of ice floes, fjords and Arctic ripples that lick across seal and porpoise.

The legacy of three “very close scrapes” with drowning as a child has been a respectful fascination for the sea, a presence that has seeped into much of Akomfrah’s work “partly because it alerted me to mortality, but also because I’ve known of its power from the beginning”.

Vertigo Sea is a three-screen video work that draws together archival and original footage with a soundscape rich in spoken words ranging from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, to migrant testimonials that reflect man’s hazardous relationship with water.

First shown at last year’s Venice Biennale, it starts a tour of British museums at the Arnolfini in Bristol next weekend. Thirty years after his debut with Handsworth Songs (1986) – a layered filmwork probing the context of riots in Birmingham and London – the Ghana-born artist is also receiving a major show of new and recent work at London’s Lisson Gallery later this month.

A founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective in the 1980s with which he produced works investigating black British identity and culture, Akomfrah’s work has often explored issues of migration, memory, and post-colonialism.

In Vertigo Sea, drowning is a “shared experience” uniting harpooned whales, political dissidents of regimes in Argentina and Algiers dumped alive into lethal waters after interrogation, and the babies of transported slaves that dared cry in the night. 

In 2015, of course, it was also the fate of thousands crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. Akomfrah finished Vertigo Sea in the spring of last year. In its opening moments, in what we assume to be reportage of migrants making the trip, a voice announces an unprecedented annual death toll – of 500.

That the crisis escalated so quickly in the months following the work’s completion could not have been foreseen. “Sometimes your preoccupation reaches maturity or fruition precisely at the moment when that preoccupation also has currency,” Akomfrah explains, with the philosophical mien of an artist who has expended years of energy on uncomfortable subjects that were not at the time considered to have “currency”. 

“It struck me about seven years ago that something Herculean was going on,” he continues. People were leaving the coast of West Africa and were walking across [the continent]. In distance terms alone, this was staggering.” At the time, Akomfrah seriously considered walking from Mali to Libya and then making the sea crossing alongside the migrants 

He is not in the habit of holding himself distant from his subjects. For Handsworth Songs he eked earnest interviews out of members of Birmingham communities that at that time felt less comfortable sharing their voice with mainstream media. “Our relationship with the [filmed] image over the past three decades has undergone a profound alteration, partly due to its abundance,” explains Akomfrah, who recalls that his subjects in the 1980s feared the camera as a tool of prosecution and would either turn away or confront him.

“When they accepted, it took an enormous amount of courage.” Despite the proliferation of surveillance, that perception of a camera being a source of tyranny has waned, as Akomfrah sees it, and the constant presence of recording devices has instead become central to our sense of self.

As his film-making has evolved, so has the artistry with which he creates material for each work – footage for Vertigo Sea was shot on the Isle of Skye, the Faroes and northern Norway with the BBC’s Natural History Unit, and includes lyrical tableaux of 19th-century figures waiting at the edge of the ocean. Mnemosyne (2010), a work exploring the contrast between England’s status as a “promised land” and the reality of migrant experience, likewise portrays patient witnesses: faceless figures in winter coats standing isolated against the snow or water, that offer lone specks of colour in a forbidding landscape. 

Mnemosyne represents memory in Greek mythology and was the mother of the muses – in Akomfrah’s work, memory and the fight against forgetting becomes the wellspring of the creative urge. An image may bear witness to history, but it needs a storyteller to give it context.

Akomfrah speaks with greatest urgency of his work with archival material, drawn from disparate sources. He describes individual archives as single-narrative prisons within which images are contained, and sees his role as a broker of conversations or mediator of debate between different sets of images, releasing them to participate in new stories or challenge the accepted view of things: “The image has to be free to roam and to pick up allies.”

Thus he brings together private 1930s footage shot by a Norwegian whaleship captain with nature film from the Museum of Natural History, audio of young women recorded in Zambia in the 1950s, and an excerpt from Philip Donnellan’s documentary The Colony (1964) showing a church congregation in Birmingham in full voice. 

While he is passionate about cinema (one work in the Lisson show pays tribute to the Greek film-maker Theo Angelopoulos who died in 2012) Akomfrah prefers the gallery as a forum for his work : “It buys you intimacy – you are in an intimate dialogue with a person.” Working as an artist, rather than a traditional documentarian also allows Akomfrah to present history as something unresolved rather than a tidy narrative, to needle at uncertainty, nuance and discrepancy and to deal in textures of mood, sound and image without committing to easy interpretation. “I’m the soldier of the image,” he says. “And will go where it says that work needs to be done.”

John Akomfrah: ‘Vertigo Sea’, Arnolfini, Bristol,  16 Jan to 10 Apr, then Turner Contemporary, Margate and the Whitworth in Manchester. John Akomfrah, Lisson Gallery, London, 22 Jan to 12 Mar