John Akomfrah, artist and film-maker: 'The studio is large and calm, with comfy sofas to sit on. Space is important'

Karen Wright meets the film-maker at his studio in Dalston, north-east London

Karen Wright
Thursday 28 January 2016 17:11
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Film-maker John Akomfrah works in Dalston, north-east London. "We [the Black Audio Film Collective] moved here before Dalston was Dalston… basically. We came in '98". The studio is large and calm, filled with computers, the stuff of film-making, and comfy sofas to sit on. Space is important as "I'm not a traditional artist film-maker in the sense that I don't do everything, I don't edit everything. I can do and do do that, but a lot of my time is spent working with people, either cinematographers or editors or sound recorders or composers."

Akomfrah, is affable and engaging. He was born in 1957 in Accra, Ghana, and came to England in 1967 seeking political asylum with his mother and his three brothers. "My mum was a teacher and, basically, single-handedly brought up four boys. And her way was via debate. You would literally get talked to death."

They settled in Putney, south-west London and he recalls in those days he did not understand that he was different. He admits, "there was this massive elephant in the room, all the time. You know, you could see it but everyone said it wasn't there. John Akomfrah, walking in the country…because you'd hear people talking about this person, you know, in the third person, the trouble he makes, the problem he is, and it just felt like this other creature."

Akomfrah studied film at Portsmouth Polytechnic, applying with some friends who shared the same interests. "You have to share a desire to want to know the same things or resolve the same things. Most of us were second-generation kids from post -migrant families, from different parts of the world – the Caribbean, Africa, India, and we were all interested in art, cinema and cultural activism".

Akomfrah formed the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982, which functioned for the next 17 years. "It wasn't easy but that was the challenge, because if we can do this together, build a culture as a whole, if we can agree that this is a project worth doing, then there is hope for all of us all." Although the collective split there are still members working in the studio alongside him. Akomfrah was awarded an OBE in 2008, is on the shortlist of artists in the forthcoming Artes Mundi Prize.

As a child he says he went to the Tate every Saturday and enjoyed sneaking into the local avant garde cinema, the Pullman. Mining the black diaspora as a subject for their films, the collective's work and his own has been rewarded with attention and respect from the film and academic world, although this was not always the case in the beginning. His films, often on multiple screens, still bear witness to both radicalism of thought and form.

"We thought maybe we should go and slay something together, chase the dragon… a certain amount of intellectual energy has been spent trying to find a dragon. I actually wanted to study art history, that was my thing, but at some point I just got side-tracked. I would have easily and happily enjoyed my life doing that, but you know the elephant and the dragon."

John Akomfrah continues at Lisson Gallery, London NW1 until 12 March (lissongallery.com); 'John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea' continues at Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol until 10 April (arnolfini.org.uk)

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