THIS IS THE NINTH in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with the British artist, writer, curator, and filmmaker John Akomfrah, whose recent films include Vertigo Sea (2015) and The Stuart Hall Project (2013).
BRAD EVANS: What role do you think artists and filmmakers have when confronting the problems of violence and injustice in the world today?
JOHN AKOMFRAH: Most of my work has been concerned with this question, but I would say more through an ongoing “worrying” over the relationship between the aesthetic and the political, a worrying, if you like about form and about signature.
And one of main reasons why that worrying and attempting to get the formal balance right between them matters is because it allows for and “licenses” interventions in those spaces “outside” of my work; it emboldens me to trespass, if you like, into those “spaces” conventionally designated as off limits for the art practice. Done properly this coming together, this emphasis on form, makes things happen, things often unintended, and creates a frisson, a charge between the art and its “outside.” And this fusion, this alignment, has a major role to play for me when it comes to talking about questions of violence.
What is also really important for me to say — through the work and by implication to others — is this: I understand what’s going on in the “spaces of the political” and engage with its significance. But the work is not in some crudely mimetic relation to that political, not just mirroring it in the work. What I think I am offering are a set of propositions. Some of that is about the landscapes of violence. But those propositions are not “mere” recognitions or acknowledgments of that “political.” I am in dialogue with that “outside” about its narcissisms, its untruths, its epistemic violence, its falsehoods, and its blind spots. But I am also trying not to be ventriloquized by it. Art can pose problems in unique ways, allowing for other meaningful dialogues. It’s not about imposing but about proposing. At its best, it is a conversation, a two-way street with the political.
There are dangers to this line of reasoning, of course. I don’t like hiding behind the work or not having the courage to take a position of responsibility about a subject matter. When dealing with violence perpetrated against unarmed civilians or vulnerable groups, especially by armed and powerful State actors, I maintain it is wrong and that it needs to be countered. That’s a line I draw and make no apologies for not crossing. So, I am happy to defend this position. Like most people who believe their work is grounded by a utopian ethic, I am mindful that there are moments when the work needs to engage with questions of value and of relevance. And to be relevant certainly plays a major part in how I structure my thought process.
Do you see the artist therefore as having a crucial role in combating political amnesia and the erasure of certain oppressive histories?
There are a number of reasons why I am interested in recycling archive footage, music, artifacts, and narratives. Part of my project is to make explicit what is already happening in most societies: to reveal the coexistence of historical traces in the present and to draw attention to the alternative memories that exist in a coterminous relation to the present.
All moving images reference the past. There is always a present-tense commentary that historical images provide in the present. My ambition is always to draw out what I think is the value of that commentary, in this present. In a broader sense, I am concerned with making work in which seemingly fixed boundaries between the two (the past and the present) are questioned and ultimately blurred.
For almost all of us, the boundaries that separate past and present are fictions. Why? Because the overlaps between the two are such that in most of our lives it’s impossible to insist upon an absolute break between them. Narrative fictions insist on this separation but, in truth, most of us don’t live our lives that way.
For instance, I am only able to speak to you as an artist because I have learned various ways of addressing you that are indelibly marked and stained by residues of the past. We are all, in that sense, quintessential products of memory and memory production. And so I try to make work which broadly tries to understand this cadence of temporality to our lives, especially the ways in which narratives of space (I’m American or British or Zimbabwean) rely on a sense of a shared communion with people across the overlapping time zones of nationality.
My parents were anti-colonial activists, and the one thing I learned from that is that lives are always a messy and complicated mesh of always past and continuously present. So I am compelled to produce work that is against amnesia. Works that may not be consciously trying to remember “anything-in-particular” but instead privilege the importance of the memory as an organizing principle.
The other things I learned from their lives is this: when your mother leaves a country (England) in order to fight against that country elsewhere (colonial Ghana) and then ends up fleeing that country (post-colonial Ghana) to seek refuge in the country she started fighting against in the first place (England), the struggle for memory against a backdrop of confusing histories becomes important to you. And for me this is not simply about privileging any particular historic moment or narrative. On the contrary, what needs privileging instead is the idea that the fact of memory itself has a role to play in combating the epistemic violence of amnesia and forgetting.
We are living through a moment when the absurd threatens to colonize the real. Part of the dramaturgy of our present condition is the blurring of the lines between absurdity and reality. And part of this involves the commandeering of facts and fictions to peddle narratives that are patently untrue. It is an absurdity to claim that Great Britain was always “Great” for the vast majority of its Afro-Asian subjects, just as it is absurd to insist that Donald Trump was ever a successful businessman. In order to maintain such myths, there needs to be a selective appropriation of certain histories which then need dressing up in the language of an absurdist fiction to become “facts.”
I am also interested in playing with the blurring of boundaries, but these “new developments” mean that I have to make a distinction between what I do and the muddle we currently find ourselves in vis-à-vis the “real.” Yes, I am interested in blurring, but there is a difference between peddling myths as false narratives, and using the fictional to open things up, to extend the narratives of possibility. My projects mix things up but that is so that we might build connective tissue between characters, events, histories, and stories. It is basically a good old-fashioned attempt to open up avenues of veracity, turning creeks, if you will, into Panama Canals of meanings. But you need the creek to start. That is very different from the manufacturing or construction of the “real” from a purposefully deceitful position. I’m trying to broaden our affective grasps of moments, not shut them down.
Turning to your powerful and devastating installation Vertigo Sea, which has been widely applauded, not least for bringing together the violent history of the transatlantic slave trade with the plight of contemporary refugees. Can you tell me about the inspiration behind this work? And what message did you hope the piece might convey?
Artists often forget the detailed reasons why they started something, and that’s natural: by the time you have to talk about something you made, you are usually already into making something else, trying once again “to mend the tear in the fabric of time,” as Chris Marker eloquently put it. So you’ve already “migrated” elsewhere, as it were.
Interestingly, for me, however with Vertigo, while I may not be able to note all its intended motives and ambitions, there is still this really powerful bond between us. And it’s a bond that continues to hold strong even today.
Vertigo Sea is about a half-millennia history of deaths at sea. And those deaths connect continental histories with species genocide and the transatlantic trade, among others. I wanted to make something about the dramaturgy and solitude of suffering, especially of death at sea because it’s such a major feature of the “migrant condition” at the moment. Thousands of young men and women from the Global South have drowned trying to get to Europe in these rickety pirogues, for instance. And when that journey is one your parents made 70 years ago in the relative comfort of a ship, it seems to me that that you have an ethical responsibility to these lost lives, a need to “make sense” of their violent ends.
Often when people die as a result of a political narrative, they do so removed from others, removed from their very sense of belonging in this world. Such deaths often happen “alone,” even though there may be countless others who die in a similar way with you. If you are one of three hundred enslaved Africans, each individually tossed overboard a slave ship, death is a solitary “becoming.” Somebody wanted you to “disappear,” and that is something they needed you to do alone. And those architects of your death wanted a sea of amnesia to wash over the memory of your disappearance.
The important thing for me was that there were hundreds of people like that who came to me during the research for the installation, from all over the world, a family of death, if you like. All “disappeared” into a watery space of oblivion: sub-Saharan Africans in the 18th and 19th centuries, Algerians in the ’60s, Argentines and Vietnamese in the ’70s. And I remember feeling a very strong ethical obligation to try and exhume all of these dead people and memories together, to break the solitude by getting them to “talk” to each other. Art can do that; it can break the curse of solitude by getting them to coexist in the same discursive space. It can break the shackles of amnesia that had bound them, separately, to an eternity as condemned ghosts. It can release them from a forgotten and dehumanized fate, locked forever in different unmarked tombs across a watery planet.
That’s what I meant by the “blurring.” It’s about this need to present narrative possibilities for forgotten lives, to talk about the memory of their suffering, to restore something more humane to their existence, to heal a tear in the fabric of time brought about by violence so that we might see the forgotten again as human beings who belong to our shared human family, despite the violence they have suffered.
Can you talk to me about the memory of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, in particular the way his intellectual work helped shaped you as an artist?
The first thing to say was this wonderful man was a friend. He was initially a mentor, certainly a charismatic example and a figure who embodied all manner of possibilities for my generation. Many of us of that ’80s generation of artists and activists gravitated toward Stuart because he seemed to possess this maverick combination of possibilities that we recognized in ourselves. He was a figure of multiple migrations and crossovers and these seemed to say something directly to our then-present condition. And what’s even more important, since he uncannily seemed to sense this — the very textures of his life spoke to our experience. And this “standing” and “position” of necessity that he had for us is something he appreciated and responded to with remarkable generosity of his time, life, and ideas.
Stuart in this regard was not simply intellectually of value, and to be honest I don’t think his “intellectualism” was the original draw for me. When you are 16 or 17 and you see this black man on the television, the attraction wasn’t intellectual; it was an image of possibility and hope. What marked him was a difference: he wasn’t an athlete, a pop star, or a performer. And that made you feel he represented something of considerable importance. It was only later that the intellectual magnitude of this thinking started to resonate and shape the way I saw the world.
I don’t think the word influence best describes the impact his persona and work had on many of us. We absolutely were influenced, no question, but there is a broader cultural ecosystem that he became willingly and enthusiastically a part of that allowed for a considerable amount of the collective work, the aesthetic struggle, and cultural reflections we made in the ’80s and ’90s. This started in the United Kingdom and then continued to spread across the planet, including to the United States. Stuart embodied one of those alliances between the heart and mind, which upon reflection, I can’t imagine what our lives would be like without. And I mean that very seriously. There were many desperate people in the 1970s with very desperate plans, so his example both as a figure and a thinker proved invaluable to many of us.
You have previously also mentioned your admiration for Andrei Tarkovsky. What is it about his cinematic work, notably in the context of tragedy and ruins, which you find most compelling and influential?
Like Stuart, Tarkovsky is one of those people who, for me, the first encounter with proved fatal! I still feel like I have never got over it. It proved fatal because it was so compelling and a true example of alterity. You couldn’t get a better sense of the real potential of cinema, truly the invention of unimaginable worlds. I remember my first viewing of his brilliant film Mirror, which I watched when I was about 16. It just seemed like something had landed from some alien planet. And that made it all the more compelling, even though I am still trying to understand the nature of that compulsion and genuine admiration.
At the heart of the Tarkovsky project is a kind of agnosticism about the significance and importance of the visible, the seen. And he comes at this in different ways, all of which serve to disrupt the notion that we are of central importance in all this, that we are the center of the universe. He offers a sort of pantheistic sense of our relationship with the elemental in his work, and that continues to stay with me. In this regard, I have always viewed him as an outlaw cynic who possessed the outside vision, which resonates and illustrates the importance of staying on the outside when it comes to questions of criticality and creativity. It also resonated personally. This outlaw status, being on the outside looking inward, depicted the reality I felt while growing up in England.
There is another lesson we can take from his cinema. Namely, when art is done well, it is able to move the border, aesthetically, discursively, and intellectually. It’s possible to get people to believe they are part of something bigger and that they should be open to new challenges and obligations as a worldly citizen. Through his work, Tarkovsky shows that art can have these magnificent protean qualities to disrupt familiar coordinates concerning the logics of space and time, transporting them literally to new lands of possibility and outlook.
Given the toxic political climate in the United States, the issue of race and its ongoing relevance seems as pressing as ever. What are your thoughts on the landscapes of racial prejudice you encounter?
When you encounter contemporary forms of racialization, it is both uncanny and deeply unsettling. It comes to me now with this aura of the eerie, the ghostly. It’s one of those “forest of things” one genuinely felt we were seeing our way through. And so its contemporary intensities and durability, its staying power feels genuinely eerie and otherworldly, like being stuck in an H. P. Lovecraft ghost story or something!
We can sense once again its “forcefulness,” its durability across many landscapes of hatred. It is displaying a remarkably “viral” facility and capacity to transform, migrate, and return in multiple ways. So, it is still a substantial, bodily presence that still retains the ability to shock and devastate lives in the most appalling ways. But I cannot allow it to be so. It went out of my backdoor as a sick dog needing to be put down, and it’s not coming back through the front door as a healthy puppy.
But undermining is a Janus-faced creature because it is also one of the protocols of racialization as well. Hands need to stay hands and not become human beings. And this involves rearranging the basis upon which claims of subjecthood can be made by the “outsider.” An “inside” is needed, and racialization operates by rendering the existence of the outsider fragile, temporary, uncertain. Such that the very ground upon which the outsider walks violently moves with doubtful tremors that will continue until the “outsider” accepts the tautological logic of their enforced estrangement (I am an outsider and therefore should be outside) and decides that it’s time to leave. Undermining as such is integral to the process of un-naming of the outsider. And it is also the starting point for the emergence of the “facile explanations” of race. You only have to think of the recent six-nation Muslim travel restriction to see what I mean.
How do you think society might resource the arts better in developing a critique of violence?
That’s a very good question in the United States at the moment, isn’t it? And makes you understand why the threats to the NEA are no mere coincidence. I see this long line of writers and thinkers who have been concerned with the links between politics and aesthetics, and one hopes that some of their charismatic examples might be of use here. It’s a line that connects a range of disparate souls, from the likes of Frederick Douglass to Virginia Woolf, W. E. B. Du Bois to Walter Benjamin, Emily Dickinson to Bertolt Brecht, Leo Tolstoy to Toni Morrison. Each of them understood and understands quite clearly the “political” importance of their work as art. Our task is perhaps first to try and understand why that importance has diminished over time. It is not that artists have necessarily been doing anything different, though it certainly benefits systems of power if the critical voice of the artist is marginalized.
Alongside this, we need to return something of this tradition, which maintains that we can rethink the world anew. That the creation of new worlds is not beyond us, and we have the ability to raise the issue about how the creative can be put to use in collectively answering the big questions. If someone was to say to me, “We really like your work and we hope it finds a home solely in the best gallery space on the planet,” that would make me deeply unhappy. The hope is that it would reverberate and have resonance with people in their daily lives and contribute something to their daily struggles for dignity and in the fight for justice. Working with matters of the present, the production of art and its ability to change people’s perceptions can and should be far reaching. At least that is my hope looking forward in these uncertain times.
Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.