Akomfrah’s work is characterised by a rich, multi-layered visual style that is as poetic as it is political and which frequently fuses contemporary issues with history, fiction and mythology. Collaging archival film footage, still photography and newsreel with new material, he investigates personal and collective memories, post-colonialism, temporality and aesthetics in works that frequently explore the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the US.
Akomfrah first came to attention in the early 1980s as a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, with whom he still collaborates today. Their film Handsworth Songs (1986), which marks its thirtieth anniversary next year, explored the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a charged combination of archival material, that won international prizes and attracted a huge audience when shown at Tate Modern in the wake of the 2011 riots. Similarly, The Unfinished Conversation (2012) combines found and newly shot footage to create a kaleidoscopic biopic of the cultural theorist Professor Stuart Hall’s life and work — a piece that is simultaneously projected onto three screens and has been described by the critic Jennifer Higgie as being “as sensitive to the nuances of music, collage, atmosphere and biography as it is to the brute facts of politics”. Other works such as Mnemosyne (2010), Peripeteia (2012) and Vertigo Sea (2015) borrow their premises from literature, mythology and art history, adopting fictional, even oneiric registers to create meditations on memory, African diaspora and global migration.
For his debut at Lisson, Akomfrah is making two new diptych video installations, shot in Greece and Barbados respectively. The former looks at Greece’s precarious economic position through the cinematic references or “the eyes” of one of the country’s greatest film-makers, Theo Angelopulous, to consider the eye more generally; while the latter approaches the current refugee crisis through the handwriting of the Caribbean writer George Lamming, layering contemporary events in Europe with a little known event from 1654, when Sephardic Jews, escaping the Inquisition in Catholic Brazil, fled to the island of Barbados. These will be shown together with other new and recent works including Tropikos (2016), a film that transforms the landscape of the Tamar Valley into a sixteenth-century English port of exploration on the African continent in order to reveal the deep-rooted and darker history of the river.
The Lisson Gallery exhibition will coincide with the first UK showing of Akomfrah’s three-screen video installation Vertigo Sea at the Arnolfini in Bristol (16 January – 10 April 2016), following its premiere as part of Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition ‘All the World’s Futures’ at the Venice Biennale in May 2015. Together with Trevor Mathison, Akomfrah has been commissioned to create All That Is Solid (2015) for the British Art Show 8 (at Leeds Art Gallery until 10 January 2016, then touring to Edinburgh, Norwich and Southampton). Akomfrah has also been nominated for the prestigious Artes Mundi, the UK’s largest art prize, the winner of which will be announced in January 2017.