The Matter of Memory
John Akomfrah in conversation with Anthony Downey

The characters in John Akomfrah’s poetic film essays are like "Time Travelers" stranded somewhere between past and future. But what really interests the London filmmaker, whose work is part of the Deutsche Bank Collection, is the present.
John Akomfrah deals in his works with memory, post-colonialism, and the experience of global diaspora. Combining documentary footage with staged scenes, he creates complex cinematic compositions that are at once essay, short story, and poem. His recent works include The Unfinished Conversation (2012), a moving portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, and Peripeteia (2012), a video installation in which he imagines the lives of a black man and woman whom Albrecht Dürer portrayed in the sixteenth century. Vertigo Sea (2015) looks at the ocean as a scene of both grandeur and menace. Akomfrah juxtaposes memoirs written by immigrants and slaves of their passage across the Atlantic with images of the brutal practices of modern whaling. In Purple, his current project for London’s Barbican, he reflects on the impact of climate change. Why this is a matter of life or death is one of the topics he discussed in his London studio with Anthony Downey

Anthony Downey: I wanted to begin by asking a question about “The Liminality Triptych”. There seem to be a number of references to historical elements in your work on this project, including notions of diversity, tolerance, and migration. But it also looks forward to what you have referred to as the “forces of disruption” that seem to displace and re-order traditional notions of belonging and community.

John Akomfrah: The Liminality Triptych is a figurative photographic work that uses the language, ideas, icons, and conventions of the historical triptych to speak to modern themes around—I agree with you—diversity, tolerance, and the coming of the new. The panels depict three couples—all of mixed heritage— who originate from different historical epochs: the 1860s, 1890s, and 1920s, respectively. The work is about journeys and journeying, and each couple presents or stages elements of that, as well as their relationships, in a panoramic setting. Apart from the ideas, the piece was inspired formally by two of the most famous triptychs in the history of Western painting: The Portinari Altarpiece or Portinaria Triptych from 1475 by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, and the Adoration of the Magi from 1510 by Hieronymus Bosch.

I was particularly interested in how these works explore liminal, in-between states of being, as if the figures in the landscape had been abandoned by time.

All three panels do involve figures of banishment, figures of “difference” who are now journeying in time toward new places and spaces. There is also a sense of ghostliness, or purgatory, a degree of being in-between. I became quite interested in this notion of liminality and purgatory after reading Dante’s Divine Comedy, which I think was completed the year of his death in 1321. Purgatory suggests a state in which we, or a culture and its protagonists, remain suspended when it comes to certain questions around our sense of selfhood—questions that have been repeatedly posed but still remain unresolved or unfinished as thought processes. There are also questions about how the liminal, in-between spaces of migration and displacement seem to reappear again and again as ghostly apparitions, stalking the present. These ghosts exist outside of time and disrupt thought processes and, as a filmmaker working with images, I find them compelling.

This anachronistic existence—being out of time— and the notion of a suspended state of being also seem to be integral factors in other films of yours such as “Peripeteia,” from 2012, “Tropikos,” from 2016, and “The Airport,” from 2016.

Yes, that is very much the case with those works, too. In The Airport a number of figures inhabit the landscape of a rundown, abandoned airport in southern Greece. They are disparate characters—an astronaut, a gorilla, and a number of unnamed individuals— but they all co-exist in an elliptical, elastic temporal zone. For me, The Airport was also about acknowledging multiple influences on my work over the years, including Stanley Kubrick and Theo Angelopoulos. I do not think you can look at The Airport without seeing the work of Theo Angelopoulos, because he had an ability to stitch time, past and present, almost seamlessly in a series of elegant moves. Angelopoulos was a master of the things that I had been trying to fashion in my films from the 1980s onwards. In his movies, something starts in the present, migrates to the past, and then returns to the present—to the same space and the same characters, without the viewer even noticing it. You would be transported somewhere else, for a moment, and that was magical, for me; it had a lot to do with how my filmmaking practice grew, and the influences on it.

Do you think this stitching of time is also key to “Peripeteia” and “Tropikos?”

Yes, I try to make this happen in both Peripeteia and Tropikos. In Peripeteia, I looked at two drawings from the sixteenth century, both by Albrecht Dürer. Both portraits—Head of a Negro from 1508 and Portrait of the Moorish Woman Katharina from 1520—are among the earliest extant Western representations of black people. The subjects, despite having being lost to history in any form other than the drawings we see today, reappear in my film as flesh-and-blood people inhabiting a contemporary moorland landscape. In Tropikos, I looked at the interwoven relationships that came about between Africa and Britain as a result of the slave trade and how this produced different levels of displacement, in spatial and temporal terms, that forced stories together into one condensed narrative.

Can I ask you about “Vertigo Sea”, from 2015, a work that focused on a number of recurring themes, including, as already mentioned in relation to “Tropikos,” the slave trade, but also environmental degradation, the history of whaling, and the current plight of refugees?

Conceptually, Vertigo Sea came out of two very distinct sources, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick from 1851 and Heathcote Williams’s epic poem Whale Nation from 1988, the latter being a harrowing yet inspiring work that explores the history and majesty of the largest mammal on Earth. The other key agent was the sea, the animated vitality of the sea as an organism of sorts and how it predetermines, as a non-human force, the fate of people and their historical relationships to time and space. These references allowed me the scope to explore the different registers of the sea in literary, philosophical, economic, and historical terms.

You mention the non-human forces of the sea, its animated vitality, and this seems to be absolutely central to your new project, “Purple,” which will premier at the Barbican's Curve Gallery in October.

Purple is one of the most complex projects I have ever embarked upon, and perhaps one of the most autobiographical. I grew up in West London, just off King’s Road, in the lee of Battersea Power Station. When I set out in Purple to make a film about climate change and global warming, it occurred to me that the footage I was looking at was very much part of what I was living—there’s a brief shot of Battersea Power Station in the film—and I was one of those who was being poisoned by its toxic emissions. It’s quite difficult to remain objective in such circumstances.

The film is very much about the Anthropocene, a complex term that designates a new geomorphological age in which human activity is having a discernible impact on the Earth. The complexity of these processes is staggering if not overwhelming, and I was wondering if that is why you opted for such a complex multiscreen, six-channel installation for “Purple?”

Let’s be clear here: No one in their right mind “opts” for such complexity unless there is a very good reason, but the intricacy and involvedness of the Anthropocene as an idea and process did seem to warrant a total rethinking of how I approach certain ideas, formally and conceptually. I wanted to achieve two things: I wanted to generate an immersive multiscreen meditation on the active powers of nonhuman elements—land, sea, air—and their impact on our biospheric future. I want the audience to feel very much part of this, physically and emotionally. The multiple screens were also a way to move away from a single-screen narrative, a privileging of a singular point of view or sovereign sense of looking and seeing. If you are going to pose the question of what it means to experience the Anthropocene as an actual physical fact of life and death, you need to clear the stage and invite in the non-human actors, the “vital materials” that political theorist Jane Bennett has observed in her work. It is these forces, which are increasingly unstable, that will determine not just our future, but any sense of agency or long-term purpose that we can and cannot assume.

Are we returning here to the “forces of disruption” you alluded to in “The Liminality Series” at the outset?

In a way we are, but the forces are changing and they will affect us all–not just those we have abandoned to the forces of war and conflict. Climate change will cause mass-scale migration and displacement across the globe, there is no doubt about that.

Finally, I must ask, where did the title “Purple” come from?

The title comes from the one and only Prince, who seemed to have had some keen insights into the color and its nature, and how it has a range of meanings across different cultures. The cross-cultural appeal that the color had for Prince is precisely what I am trying to draw upon in Purple. As a color, it also seems to me to be an in-between one, residing somewhere between red and blue, and it is therefore a liminal color as such—an in-between, almost oscillating state that remains central to the way the various elements in Purple operate. 

Anthony Downey is professor of Visual Culture in North Africa and the Middle East, Birmingham City University. He most recently published Don’t Shrink Me to the Size of a Bullet: The Works of Hiwa K (2017).