Unsuspected geographies

[Lire la version française]

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.

John Akomfrah, The Nine Muses, documentaire, 2010, 1h36, Icarus Films Crédits : John Akomfrah, Icarus Films. Voir le trailer : https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theninemuses

John Akom­frah, The Nine Muses, docu­men­tary, 2010, 1h36, Icarus Films.
Watch the trailer :
https://​vimeo​.com/​o​n​d​e​m​a​n​d​/​t​h​e​n​i​n​emuses

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 Project[1]John Akom­frah, The Stuart Hall Project, docu­men­tary, 2013, 99 min, British Film Insti­tute. Watch the film (on subscrip­tion) : https://​player​.bfi​.org​.uk/​s​u​b​s​c​r​i​p​t​i​o​n​/​f​i​l​m​/​w​a​t​c​h​-​t​h​e​-​s​t​u​a​r​t​-​h​a​l​l​-​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​-​2​0​1​3​-​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-up[2]A 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 sepa­ra­bility[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/​b​i​e​n​a​l​/​d​o​c​s​/​3​2​b​s​p​-​c​a​t​a​l​o​g​o​-​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.


Notes

Notes
1 John Akom­frah, The Stuart Hall Project, docu­men­tary, 2013, 99 min, British Film Insti­tute. Watch the film (on subscrip­tion) : https://​player​.bfi​.org​.uk/​s​u​b​s​c​r​i​p​t​i​o​n​/​f​i​l​m​/​w​a​t​c​h​-​t​h​e​-​s​t​u​a​r​t​-​h​a​l​l​-​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​-​2​0​1​3​-​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/​b​i​e​n​a​l​/​d​o​c​s​/​3​2​b​s​p​-​c​a​t​a​l​o​g​o​-​web-en.
The author

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://​mediter​ranean​-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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