Iain Chambers, specialist in Cultural
and Postcolonial Studies
Based on a work of quotation and reference, John Akomfrah, a British artist of Ghanaian origin, reveals the influence and domination of Western art history on the imaginary of migration. A decolonial perspective that questions the way our cultural unconscious shapes our visions of the world.
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Hamburg.
In John Akomfrah’s film The Nine Muses (2010) we encounter a strikingly poetical allegory on post-1945 immigration in Britain. We see a black male body in the frozen landscapes of the far North. His presence disturbs and interrogates the Western canon : both its sense of history and aesthetics. Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Mists (1818), Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) now offer hospitality to a black man in a yellow parka contemplating Arctic infinity. The repetition of accredited words and imagery (Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, John Milton…) underscores the mythical quality of the odyssey of migration from the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian sub-continent to the wasteland of post-war Britain. The images of European culture are not simply copied. They are appropriated, reworked and released into another way of telling. They now bear witness to an ignored trajectory that arrives from the souths of the world. The images acquire another life. Their transit and translation transform our very understanding of modern space and time. Dismantling claims of property – Who do the images belong to ? Who is narrating whom ? – they take us elsewhere, into another, less exclusive, critical space.
As an artist and individual John Akomfrah refuses to be simply ‘black’, British and of Ghanaian descent. Refuting a narrow idea of exile, his work explores the social and political potentials of migration. It promotes what the British-Jamaican critic Stuart Hall — the subject of Akomfrah’s film, The Stuart Hall ProjectJohn Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project, documentary, 2013, 99 min, British Film Institute. Watch the film (on subscription) : https://player.bfi.org.uk/subscription/film/watch-the-stuart-hall-project-2013-online (2013) — would have called a diasporic aesthetics. The refusal to accept a fixed place in the order of history, visual culture and aesthetics, interrupts the sequential finality of art history and the idealised conception of the artist. It also frees understandings of migration from the empirical realism that frames it in a precise socio-economic category. Through a visual poetics, the concept of migration literally migrates. This migrating modernity confuses and confutes the categories that seek to contain its cultural and historical challenge. It signals and uncovers a composite history that unwinds across the whole panorama of modern Britain (and Europe). It cannot be reduced to a limited identification in ‘race’, ‘migration’ or ‘identity’.
If Akomfrah’s trajectory through modernity, and across the worlds of modern art and aesthetics, proposes a precise engagement with that inheritance from a ‘black’ perspective, it is nevertheless irreducible to such a position or identity. For his visual language, a montage of filmed sequences, documentary images and cut-upA poetic writing practice invented by William Burroughs., produces the video essay and a critical gaze that is internal to the Occidental archive and its planetary pretensions. We recognise the images, register the words, receive the sounds. Their ‘blackness’ does not lie in an appeal to a separate alterity, but rather in the radical decomposition and recomposition of the audio-visual material configured by the subaltern insistence that the world is neither complete nor uniform. Akomfrah’s visual language speaks of the colonial constitution of open wounds and a justice yet to come.
John Akomfrah, Peripeteia (extract), 2012, 18 min 12 s, Smoking Dogs Films.
©John Akomfrah/Smoking Dogs Filmss
Albrecht Dürer : Portrait of Katherina, 1521, silverpoint drawing on paper, 20 x 14 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (left) ; Head of an African, 1508, black chalk drawing on paper, 31,8 × 21,7 cm, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienne (right).
In Peripeteia (2012) we again encounter black figures in a north European rural landscape. The video returns us to Albert Dürer’s studies of a black male and a female figures at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Matter seemingly out of place pushes the existing historical narrative, and its arrangement of knowing the world, out of joint. Pulled out of the archive of European art this visual figuration suggests that the world is wider and far more than us. The formal beauty of the work bears a critical supplement. Our modernity has always been accompanied and made, however violently, by others. This suggests that we look, listen and learn from what exceeds and refutes our authorisation.
All of Akomfrah’s work involves a continual engagement with the historical, cultural and aesthetic archives of the West, exposing their underside and the repressive mechanisms of representation. If Africa or the Americas have been an integral part of modernity from its very beginning, if slavery, colonialism and empire are central to the history of the modern political economy, then they are also deeply inscribed in the formation of Western democratic institutions and their visions of ‘freedom’. The deep, and unacknowledged, paradox that our freedom and rights are based on the structural exclusion of freedom and rights to others, is something that Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin never tired of repeating. Crossing Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or J.M.W. Turner’s seascapes, as in his work Vertigo Sea (2015), chasing the connections to an Afrofuturism sedimented in the archives of black music in The Last Angel of History (1996), Akomfrah invites us to see Occidental aesthetics being split from itself to accommodate other histories, others. There is no outside. At this point, within a modernity that is never simply ours to narrate, illustrate and imagine, every historical moment becomes a crossroads, offering passages taken and not taken, lives both recognised and refused. A sequential account breaks down in the mix. Official accounts are dubbed and creolised to liberate the repressed from established representations.
John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, three-channel video installation, 48 min. © John Akomfrah
J. M. William Turner, The Slave Ship, 1840, oil on canvas, 91 cm × 123 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Here the specificity of blackness, its subaltern and negated histories, proposes an emergent universality : what the Afro-Brazilian philosopher Denise Ferreira da Silva refers to as differences without separabilityDenise Ferreira da Silva, ‶On Difference Without Separability″, in : Jochen Volz and Júlia Rebouças, 32nd Bienal de São Paulo : Incerteza viva [Living Uncertainty], São Paulo, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 2016, p. 57 – 65. URL : https://issuu.com/bienal/docs/32bsp-catalogo-web-en.. Routing negated memories and refused perspectives through our landscape does not so much take us back to a lost past as into an unsuspected present. The images contain more than we can ever grasp or comprehend. The institutional archive, its history, museums, aesthetics, and the ethnographic drive to objectify and define others, are reworked and challenged. In a profound manner, the past, still to be registered and acknowledged, now comes to us from the future.
|↑1||John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project, documentary, 2013, 99 min, British Film Institute. Watch the film (on subscription) : https://player.bfi.org.uk/subscription/film/watch-the-stuart-hall-project-2013-online|
|↑2||A poetic writing practice invented by William Burroughs.|
|↑3||Denise Ferreira da Silva, ‶On Difference Without Separability″, in : Jochen Volz and Júlia Rebouças, 32nd Bienal de São Paulo : Incerteza viva [Living Uncertainty], São Paulo, Fundação Bienal de São Paulo, 2016, p. 57 – 65. URL : https://issuu.com/bienal/docs/32bsp-catalogo-web-en.|
Iain Chambers is an independent writer and critic. He formerly taught Cultural and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Naples, Orientale. He blogs at : https://mediterranean-blues.blog
To cite this article
Ian Chambers, « Unsuspected geographies », in : Elsa Gomis, Perin Emel Yavuz et Francesco Zucconi (dir.), Dossier « Les images migrent aussi », De facto [En ligne], 24 | Janvier 2021, mis en ligne le 29 Janvier 2020. URL : https://www.icmigrations.cnrs.fr/en/2021/01/07/defacto-024 – 05-en/
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