In 1950 in London I was at the beginning of that great movement of peoples that was to take place in the second half of the twentieth century—a movement and a cultural mixing greater than the peopling of the United States.
—V.S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, 1987
These are for those to whom history has not been friendly, for those who have known the cruelties of political becoming, those who demand in the shadows of dying technologies, those who live in the sufferings of defiance, those who live among the abandoned aspirations which were the metropolis, let them bear witness to the ideals which in time will be born in hope. In time let them bear witness to the process by which the living transforms the dead into partners in struggle.
—Black Audio Film Collective, Handsworth Songs, 1986
PAULETTE WILSON MOVED from Jamaica to the UK in 1968, attended primary and secondary school there, raised her daughter, Natalie, there, and now helps raise her granddaughter. She worked for much of that time in the restaurant sector, at one point serving members of Parliament at the House of Commons café. At her retirement, Wilson could show over three decades of National Insurance payments and a long history of tax slips. So it must have come as a surprise, when, in October of last year, she received a deportation notice from the Home Office. The government was sending her “back” to Jamaica, an island she hadn’t been to since she was ten.
Wilson’s is one of the many cases that emerged earlier this year as part of the Guardian’s investigation into the Windrush Scandal: named after a ship, the HMT Empire Windrush, which brought an early group of Caribbean migrants to the UK in 1948. It turns out that many West Indian migrants who moved to Britain in that era never formally naturalized or applied for a passport.1 Half a century later they were deemed illegals.2 Several were threatened with direct removal; others were denied care at hospitals; others still were turned out of their jobs and homes.
You invite your imperial subjects to rebuild your economy; you use their labor for over fifty years; then you wipe the slate clean and send them packing “home.” As a fable, the Windrush Scandal nicely catches the tedious persistence—and potency—of colonial amnesia. “I grew up with the National Front around my area,” Sarah O’Connor, another victim, recently told a reporter, referring to Britain’s proudest nativist group. “I thought those attitudes had been stamped out. I think that the government has stoked it up again.”3
If the latter half of the twentieth century is now seen as the great era of decolonization, it may also be remembered as the period when the issue of immigration, and anti-immigrant sentiment, was stitched in the cultural fabric of the formerly imperial West. It’s hard to imagine now, but for two decades after World War II, Commonwealth citizens—Kenyans, Nigerians, South Africans, West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Australians, New Zealanders, and so forth—were free to travel to and from the UK and had the right to work there. But Britain lurched rightward in the late 1960s, culminating in the passage of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which restricted entry to people who were born in the country or who had one parent or grandparent born there. The same period saw the rise of figures like Enoch Powell, whose overtly racist “Rivers of Blood” speech turns fifty this year. (The Tories were necessarily in the lead here, but Labor—Labor parliamentarians at any rate—soon followed suit.)
By the ’70s and ’80s, the legacy of empire had taken on a curious double quality, a sort of split personality. On the one hand, there was the phenomenon of Raj revivalism: the cinema of Merchant Ivory and David Lean; soap operas like The Far Pavilions; countless coffee-table books that looked back fondly at the white man’s burden.4 On the other, the presence of people of color in the country was increasingly taken to be incongruous. If Asians were simply mocked, black youth, especially black men, came to be described in the mainstream British press as agents of social disorder, kids who were in some way fundamentally different from the white locals, and indeed untethered from history itself. “If you look at their faces, I think they don’t know who they are or what they are,” Tory MP Ronald Bell infamously said on the BBC news show “Panorama” in 1981, gesturing at footage of riots in Brixton, a predominantly black London suburb. “And really, what you’re asking me is how the hell one gives them the kind of sense of belonging young Englishmen have.”
This statement is heard in Expeditions One: Signs of Empire (1983), the debut work of the Black Audio Film Collective. A twenty-six-minute slide-tape piece, it is a sort of atmospheric, historically suggestive picture show. Rummaging through assorted archives—back issues of National Geographic, colonial textbooks, old catalogues—members of BAFC compiled a procession of images that in one way or another evokes what theorists today would call the “colonial imaginary”: imperial statuary and painting, old maps, snapshots from the Raj album, a photo of elephants transporting Lipton tea. The latent violence of the proceedings occasionally comes to the surface: there are a few images, for example, of mutilated Africans. Over all this plays a dense soundscape, driven by chamber music and moth-eaten by tape delays, that circles around two sound bites—Bell’s, and another from Labor party leader Hugh Gaitskell, who extolls the “multiracial” Commonwealth—sound bites that seem to constrict the vast and complex history of empire into a pair of clichés.
Expeditions One and its sister film Expeditions Two: Images of Nationality had modest opening runs. They screened at a few university film clubs and progressive art galleries. But their daring, insight, and sheer novelty as works of political art were more widely acknowledged.5 Here were polemical films that didn’t stoop to the conventions of agitprop or didactic social realism. Instead, BAFC had trapped the howling voices of empire in a sort of cinematic seashell.
Over the next fifteen years, BAFC would emerge as one of the key players in the British Black Arts Movement: a circle of painters, filmmakers, photographers, and curators loosely mentored by cultural theorist Stuart Hall.6 Manning the barricades of representation, these artists of color looked back at a racially intermingled history of empire and forward to a truly multicultural society. Their work—their self-definition of “who they are and what they are”—amounted to a cumulative response to Bell.
Within the Black Arts movement, BAFC stood out for its formal restlessness and scholarly inclination. The group was founded in 1982, at Portsmouth Polytechnic, by six undergraduates: John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Reece Auguiste, Avril Johnson, Claire Joseph, and Edward George (Joseph left in 1985 and was replaced by Trevor Mathison). Second-generation immigrants with roots in Africa and the Caribbean, they were brought together by their passion for movies, music, radical politics, and theory: disciplines they would go on to unite in more than a dozen unclassifiable essay-films, many of which were made for public television.
In these hybrid works, archival footage and found photos rubbed shoulders with new documentary material, mainly interviews, and the occasional in-studio dramatic segment modeled on street theater. A soundscape made from snatches of music and miscellaneous sound bites, stitched together by Mathison, the collective’s brilliant audio designer, was key to each film’s drama and atmosphere. The general mix of expression and sampling, of self and society, speaks to the influence of theory, particularly cultural studies. “Identity is formed at that point where the unspeakable stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of history, of a culture”: Hall’s iconic formulation could serve as a sort of manifesto.7
BAFC variously addressed the major cultural issues of the day, and race was an abiding interest. Handsworth Songs (1986) is a seminal insider account of the Handsworth riots of 1985; Who Needs a Heart (1991) blends fiction and biography to chronicle the rise of the British Black Panthers; A Touch of the Tar Brush (1992) explores the history of Liverpool’s black community. Later, BAFC would make films about America, such as Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993), a semi-fictional biopic, and The Last Angel of History (1995), an overview of early Afrofuturism.
JOHN AKOMFRAH (b. 1957) directed most of BAFC’s films and is today the group’s most visible alumnus. Born to Ghanaian parents—his father was killed in the CIA-assisted coup of the Kwame Nkrumah government8—he was brought up in London in a milieu of West African exiles. From a young age, Akomfrah was a radical nerd: organizing student sit-ins, prowling film clubs, reading voraciously.9 He befriended future collaborators Auguiste and Gopaul in high school (charachteristically, he met Gopaul in a feminist theory seminar). Later, he was to become something like the group’s spokesman. “In television interviews, [Akomfrah] was—and remains—both plummy and incisive, adept at discussing Althusser and Antonioni in the same sentence, brilliant at joining the dots between structuralist cinema and revolutionary politics,” observes Sukhdev Sandhu.10
BAFC closed shop in 1998, after which Akomfrah sidestepped—solo—into the art world.11 His breakout moment came in 2002, when Okwui Enwezor screened his films at Documenta 11. Since then Akomfrah has become a regular figure on the biennial circuit and is now represented by Lisson Gallery. Over that period, and perhaps this is the art world’s influence, he has taken to multiple-channel installations. Recent projects—The Unfinished Conversation (2012), a magisterial biopic of Stuart Hall; Vertigo Sea (2015), an investigation into the “aquatic sublime”; and Precarity (2017), about the legendary New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden—have involved three screens. The upgrade in equipment has made for cinema that is more technically complex and expansive; the possibilities of montage are exponentially greater when footage is spread across a triptych.
“John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire,” on view this summer at the New Museum in New York, was the filmmaker’s most comprehensive US exhibition to date. The show occupied the museum’s second floor, which the curators turned into an elegant little cineplex, screening four films—Expeditions One, The Unfinished Conversation, Transfigured Night (2013), and Vertigo Sea—in separate galleries. (Four older BAFC films were also screened periodically in the building’s basement theater.)
It’s a wide time span: thirty-two years. you can tell as much from the technology. Expeditions One, with its patient roll call of 35mm Ektachrome tape slides, captured on a rostrum camera, seems positively dinky when set beside a later mega-production like Vertigo Sea, an HD video installation that washes over you like a breaker. Yet, for all the material differences, Akomfrah’s key techniques—a nonnarrative, montage approach; the mix of found and new footage; quotations from literary texts; a taste for highly wrought visual surfaces—have remained constant throughout his career. Above all, he has retained an energetic and colossally patient commitment to archival research, and a corresponding, almost mystical belief in the evocative power and political significance of old footage and images.
This tendency, which dates back to the early days of BAFC, has complex, personal roots. Akomfrah addresses this in an interview with New Museum curator Gary Carrion-Murayari:
“I’ve spoken a lot about the discovery, this business of how one discovers the doppelgänger, the phantom that stalks our lives as teenagers, and also about that mirror moment when you suddenly realize that actually, this figure, this ghost that you’ve been trying to run away from . . . the fiction of the black figure, was in fact, and is in fact, you. . . . You suddenly realize that all the news accounts and the TV reportage—about a young man or woman who is causing trouble, and who you were trying to avoid because you were trying to be a good British subject—were talking about you. You became aware of that in spite of all your disavowing gestures, something has been pinned on you. . . And that immediately throws up this question of the historical, to the extent that you are not responsible for these stereotypes . . . and mythologies around you. . . And slowly you think, well, one might need to look at this question of construction, of representation, and of narratives that precede you and that are the stage of the present before your arrival.”12
There is a distinctly psychoanalytic elegance to this reflection. Not for nothing does it recall Fanon. The trauma, as it were, comprises growing up black in a racist country. The (self)diagnosis is the belated recognition that this society made you want to escape your skin color. Having understood that escape is impossible, and indeed misguided, you then search for a therapy. Here’s where the archive comes in. The visual history of imperialism serves as a master key to your complexes. By deconstructing the archive you reframe your relationship to to society.
It’s immediately clear how it applies to Expeditions One. To an extent, it flavors all Akomfrah’s work. Over time, however, his interest in the archive has taken on a more complex texture (if it hadn’t, he would be a pretty boring artist). The change seems to have been prompted by Akomfrah’s encounter with video footage of early immigrant life in Britain: ethnographically tinted films made by the BBC, news clips from smaller outlets such as British Movietone news and Yorkshire television, other miscellaneous footage found in provincial libraries and government archives. These were portrayals of immigrants, not self-depictions. And yet Akomfrah came to feel that they were not merely catalogues of surveillance and domination—even if that’s what they were initially intended to be. On the contrary, he sensed that there were forms of popular life and consciousness embedded in these documents that escaped official narratives.
His task as a filmmaker, then, would be to assemble a sort of counter-history. Marriage records at city hall, news clips of immigrants disembarking on English shores, footage of the black poor at home or black toddlers at preschool or black demonstrators in the street: all such material was double-sided. It might have been made to keep the immigrants in their place, but, with some creativity, it could be used to narrate the immigrants’ own stories.13
IF EXPEDITIONS ONE amounted to a subversive genealogy, Akomfrah’s mature films might be described as séance sessions or exercises in ancestor worship. He uses a range of cinematic tactics to radically reposition or open up archival material. An amazing example of this happens near the beginning of Handsworth Songs, which was screened downstairs at the New Museum.
Originally made for the Channel 4 series “Britain: The Lie of the Land,” Handsworth Songs was released in 1986, a year after the titular riots in Handsworth, a predominantly black suburb of Birmingham. The film was a response to the mainstream coverage of the events, which were crassly interpreted by the press as an outburst of senseless black criminality.14 Akomfrah cuts against this discourse by offering something like an insider account. This is achieved partly through interviews with community leaders, who discuss the neighborhood’s economic problems and history of over-policing. More relevant is how Akomfrah’s agenda works at the level of style.
The film opens in media res, with footage of the riots and its aftermath shot by BAFC: police lines and burning cars; jostling reporters and cameramen; a white politician surveying the wreckage; emptied-out side streets. Having established the setting, Akomfrah then turns to archival footage.
First, a montage of screeching newspaper front pages flashes across the screen: “Riot of Death,” “Racial Fights Could Take Over City,” “Face of a Bomber,” “Torch of Hate,” and “The Bloody Battleground.” This is the mainstream narrative of the event. It’s anxious, ill-informed, tinged with racism. And the general sense of claustrophobia is amped up by the metallic percussion on Mark Stewart’s dub track “Jerusalem.”
From here the film makes a double movement: back in time and closer to the inner life of the community. The transition is signaled sonically. As the screen slowly fades to black, an achingly beautiful track, minor key synths over a patient, funky bass line, seems to pull us away from the unforgiving gaze of the media. A procession of black-and-white wedding photographs floats past on-screen, young Caribbean men and women smiling giddily; images of hope, aspiration. As the song settles into its rhythm, we shift to old, faded footage shot at what seems to be a 1950s or ’60s immigrant dance hall where black and brown and white couples are doing their best to sex up a ballroom number. These could be the parents of the young men and women that The Daily Mail would like to present as inveterate criminals. They crossed the ocean, in the most adverse circumstances, hoping to make a better life for themselves and their children. The narrator seems to commune with their memories:
“He said to her . . . Remember the nights of Coruba cocktails and Curuba sour, their secret pregnancies, your wet nursing and me nappy-washing. It is about time we had our own child. Our own master George Hammond Banner Bart.”
Thus we come to imagine the stories of Handsworth that lie hidden behind the media coverage, that are hidden by the media coverage.
It bears repeating that this effect owes everything to editing and sound work (not to mention the lyrical script). On its own, the ballroom footage would have had little narrative or emotional significance, at least for the majority of viewers who have no personal connection with it. It has been made to speak through an inspired act of historical stereoscoping.
As the narrator continues her story, the visuals take us further back, the dance hall giving way to footage of life on the Caribbean—a man cutting sugarcane, a washerwoman smacking wet clothes with a little wooden bat—scenes of everyday struggle amid wretchedness. It is a brief and painful flash of insight; the camera soon returns to the dancers. But this much is enough to set another narrative in motion. Indeed, by this point we have lost control of the visual movement of our imagination, which sloshes backward and forward, from memory to premonition. Now it is impossible for us to watch the crass television coverage of the riot, which is introduced later in the film, without thinking of the previous generations that settled in Handsworth and tried to make a life there. Our mind keeps skipping: from the anger and desperation of the young rioters to the whittled aspirations of their working-class immigrant parents, from their immigrant parents to their grandparents in the Caribbean . . . As the narrator says later in the film: “There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories.”
THOUGH HANDSWRTH SONGS travels great distances, the film constantly returns to the same neighborhood, burrowing deeper and deeper into its psychohistory. It is a fundamentally local undertaking, and this is part of its great appeal. Something similar can be said about much of BAFC’s output. Seven Songs, for example, is a loving evocation and historical excavation of central Harlem. A Touch of the Tar Brush takes the temperature of race relations in Liverpool. And in a more personal film like The Call of Mist (1998), which was shot on the Isle of Sky, landscape is studied for the memories it evokes—in this case, memories of Akomfrah’s mother, whose passing the movie commemorates.
By the late ’90s, however, and especially after he entered the art world, Akomfrah’s films grow more global in scope. He begins to think laterally, geographically: drawing parallels between histories—national, social, personal—that do not necessarily intersect.
This approach finds a tremendous success in The Unfinished Conversation. Mixing news footage of major postwar political and cultural events with snatches of Hall’s own television appearances and more intimate photographs, the installation, entirely assembled from archival sources, is an expansive bildungsroman that charts the influential scholar’s journey from provincial Jamaica to the helm of Britain’s New Left. It is exemplary for how it gives equal billing to the “life” and “times,” or, more precisely, for the ways in which the latter are shown to impinge on the former (for example, Hall’s participation in the anti-war movement follows clips of Vietnam war newsreels.) That said, the distribution of footage across the three channels never feels obvious, not least because snatches from jazz performances—Hall was a great admirer of Miles Davis—keep breaking in.
Near the middle of the piece, around the mid-1950s, there is a long sequence in which scenes from British blue-collar life—men and women operating machines on the factory floor, workers tossing coal into a smelting furnace, panoramic shots of smokestacks and power plants—play over a reading from the famous Coketown section of Hard Times.15 This is a bitter homage: Dickens’s great nineteenth-century novel of factory life reminds us of the ongoing deindustrialization of Britain. And the lament is echoed by Hall, whom we soon hear discussing his early days as an activist with groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament: “I went up and down the country, speaking at CND meetings for about three years. . . . You could still see the smoke coming out of the chimneys and there was still textile mills.”
As a self-contained section, this is straightforward. Then Akomfrah dramatically reframes the matter. Industrial Britain gives way to the Global South, as a sort of greatest hits montage of decolonization, 1940–60, unfolds across the three screens. (This viewer recognized Nkrumah waving to an audience, Castro’s guerrillas on horseback, and policemen “lathi-charging” Indian protesters. There were surely other episodes. In any case, the focus here is less on the narrative details than on the overall atmosphere.) Hall’s voice, from the 1962 BBC radio show “Equality Between Nations,” takes over from Dickens:
“I wanted to question the very sharp opposition which you make between the concepts of liberty and equality. It seems to me not only an ethnocentric way of looking at it, but a particularly British way of looking at it. Because I don’t think these two concepts are as clearly distinct if you put them, say, into the context of the nationalist revolutions of the underdeveloped territories. I think it has been the idea of equality of one sort or the other that has mobilized people to support nationalist movements of one kind or other. What they were facing were in fact inequalities: whether they were economic or human or social or racial, they were essentially inequalities. I think they impinged on their lives as inequalities. Therefore, when they said we want to be free, what they meant was we want to be free not to be unequal.”
“Intersectionality” is too dry a term for what’s happening here. True, there are echoes between the internal class dynamics of British society and the larger system of imperialism. But Akomfrah knows this didn’t lead to any meaningful solidarity. Later in the film, for example, we learn how Hall was often abused on the streets of working-class Birmingham for appearing in public with a white woman (his wife). The cultural theorist worked in the shadow of this social failure, and so does his biographer. Akomfrah’s poignant subject is the possibility, now perhaps lost for good, of an alliance between the British proletariat and the anti-colonial Global South.
Actually, the alliance did come to fruition: in the figure of Hall and the anti-colonial British Left more broadly. A modest legacy, to be sure, and one that’s easy to dismiss. Yet a profound awareness of its limits is precisely what saves this film from bombast. To put it another way, Akomfrah makes no large claims on world history. Laying out his archival footage with extraordinary tact, he limits himself to pursuing one person’s lived experience of impersonal historical events. As Enwezor writes in his generous catalogue essay, Akomfrah’s films “address what it means to be a subject, and how the subject can be an agent of historical recall, interrogations, and analysis.”16
This observation can be taken, ex negativo, as a criticism of the other two works screened at the New Museum. Transfigured Night is a perplexing film. Archival footage and photographs from the history of decolonization—Nkrumah’s speech on nonalignment stands out—are set against languid, rather woozy shots of tourists ascending the Lincoln Memorial, and a lugubrious staged tableau showing an African politician, presumably a head of state, looking out his window at the skyline of a Western metropolis (Enwezor describes this last as a “backdrop of neocolonial imperium and global capital”17). The “idea” here is clear enough, but there’s something debilitatingly academic about Akomfrah’s take on it. He seems to approach the issue from an Olympian position; there is little sense of lived experience or memory.
Vertigo Sea suffers a more extreme version of the problem. Here the notion of a “subject” dissolves all together. The three-channel work, which was the show’s centerpiece, is described in the catalogue as a “social history of the ocean.” The piece has something for everyone. Nature: large swatches of underwater footage from BBC’s Natural History unit. But also culture: quotes from Melville and Woolf and Nietzsche and Heathcote Williams. History: henchmen of Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla dumping corpses in the ocean; Vietnamese boat people fleeing to Hong Kong; more recent deaths in the Mediterranean; the testimony of a Nigerian fisherman. But also fiction: campy staged shots of black and white figures in period dress.
Sections of the film are, of course, deeply affecting: how could they not be, when there is so much to choose from? Yet the overall effect is slick and machined. Perhaps this has to do with the installation’s sheer visual opulence. Akomfrah has always been a careful craftsman, but the extravagant production values of the film—which was partly funded by the Sharjah Art Foundation—smother all other cinematic effects.
It would be one thing if Vertigo Sea and Transfigured Night were experiments or outliers. In fact, they represent a new tendency. Over the past decade or so, Akomfrah’s films have grown grander and more amorphous, with thicker passports and older histories, and they are increasingly likely to present “poetic” connections between disparate, complex subjects.18 His stories were always global, but now they just seem broad. He doesn’t offer a sharp or even a meaningful system to bring the material together.
There has been a similar dilution at the level of form. Works like Handsworth Songs and The Unfinished Conversation demand to be actively read and deciphered. They operate as montages in the true dialectical sense of the term. As viewers we were invited to intervene in the narratives of history and the direction it was taking. (“The only interest in history is that it is not truly wrapped up . . . another turning is waiting to happen,” Stuart Hall says in The Unfinished Conversation.) By contrast, Vertigo Sea and Transfigured Night simply bathe viewers in affect. These films resemble harmonious collages. Like the worst abstract painting, they “can mean whatever you want them to mean.”
ALL THIS HAS led to an unfortunate depoliticization of history. Akomfrah’s new films tend to leave you with a mix of melancholy, confusion, and cosmic faux-awe. There’s no spur to thought and little real feeling. If anything, you catch a whiff of the maudlin internationalism so typical of the globalized intelligentsia: the world is complex, interconnected, and terrible; the best we can do is celebrate its diversity.
To be fair to Akomfrah, he seems aware of this danger, or of something like it. “I know the archival stuff is old and inscrutable,” he wrote in these pages, in 2014, referring to his film The Nine Muses (2010):
“But my wish is to extend its afterlife, to have the embers burn a little bit longer. At the same time, the material always suggests something that you haven’t seen or heard before. That’s the quality I want those pieces to have. If they don’t, that’s cool, I made the fucking effort. I’m not concerned principally with whether all of the pieces translate. It’s not one of my obsessions.”19
The overly combative tone here—“I made the fucking effort”—is telling. The trouble is not with “old and inscrutable” material: as films like Handsworth Songs prove, even the most obscure footage can be made to speak eloquently. The trouble, rather, is that Akomfrah is no longer doing enough with his material. If his films are still carefully scripted and designed, as the New Museum catalogue essays seem to suggest,20 his formal decisions no longer feel significant in the sense that Clive Bell meant that term.
Perhaps Akomfrah deserves more patience. Back in 1987, Salman Rushdie famously attacked Handsworth Songs, which he found too abstruse, experimental, and generally self-involved.21 There is every chance we are repeating his mistake.
Yet it might be that the art world has finally caught up with Akomfrah. BAFC came to prominence at a time when few artists or filmmakers were mining postcolonial archives.The situation could not be more different today. Over the past decade or so, there has been a spate of archival art from or about the Global South. (A partial list of the more visible figures would include Walid Raad, Emily Jacir, Naeem Mohaiemen, Yto Barrada, the Otolith Group, and Taus Makhacheva.22) These artists share a few things in common. They are broadly members of the international left, or fellow travelers, looking back at its historical defeat. Though born outside the West, they tend to live and work in western capitals. Most important, they self-consciously address a global art audience: that is, they approach their subject from a distance, as if it were a footnote in some grander, long-settled history, and they assume very little knowledge—let alone intimacy or investment—on the viewer’s part.
Seen from this perspective, films like The Nine Muses, Transfigured Night, and Vertigo Sea take on a new complexion. Akomfrah’s recent works seem less like messages from the future of cinema than reflections of the present condition of contemporary art. We might grant him some critical leeway on the grounds of his prior achievement. A similar leniency need not be awarded to his colleagues.
Consider the oeuvre of Naeem Mohaiemen, who has been shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize. A Bengali from Bangladesh who lives in New York, Mohaiemen makes films about obscure and generally wretched episodes from the history of the global left. “The Young Man Was (No Longer a Terrorist),” 2011–16, is a four-film series in which pivotal moments in Bangladesh’s history intersect with larger geopolitical events—inevitably with unhappy results. Mohaiemen’s approach in these films was to self-reflexively dramatize his research: so, for example, in Abu Ammar Is Coming (2016), about a few Bangladeshi fighters who joined the PLO, we see Mohaiemen’s gloved hands comb through evidence on a table: photographs, news clippings, postcards.
Very interesting in outline, but what does it all amount to? The film resembles nothing so much as an outtake of a BBC documentary. There are tidbits of left history, some oblique on-the-ground footage (Mohaiemen visits Lebanon), and finally a spot of emotion—an audio sample of a Bengali folk song about Arafat; the faltering of the narrator’s voice—to wrap the story up.
All that said, these short, explicitly political works are far preferable to his debut fiction feature Tripoli Cancelled (2017), which was the centerpiece of “There Is No Last Man,” Mohaiemen’s 2017 solo show at MoMA PS1 in New York. This impressively self-centered movie, which was inspired by the experiences of the artist’s father, follows the eccentric daily rituals of a man stranded in Athens’s abandoned Ellinikon Airport. It is like cross between an absurdist drama and a piece of ruin porn; there is no character development, no montage or exercise in style, and little in the way of meaningful reflection (unless you count a few cryptic comments about Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben).
As it happens, Akomfrah’s 2016 film, The Airport, was filmed at the same location. It too has elements of absurdist drama. Costumed characters from very different eras—men and women in Edwardian dress, a rather folksy guitarist, an astronaut, even the ape from 2001: A Space Odyssey—walk past one another, sometimes interacting, otherwise basking in the general aphasia. Greece itself, not an individual, seems stuck in a morass. Akomfrah’s film might be heavy-handed in parts, but it at least strives towards something meaningfully political.
“Leftwing melancholy” also plagues the London-based Otolith Group, which was nominated for a Turner Prize in 2010. Founded in 2002, the group comprises Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, who operate at once as filmmakers, curators, and theorists: a two-person alternative film culture as it were. (One of the sadder and more revealing aspects of contemporary archival practice is that it never comes alone. The artists tend to double as hype-men or village explainers.) The group’s well-regarded “Otolith Trilogy” (2003–09)—a mishmash of found footage and photographs, silly live-action sci-fi segments, narrative voice-over, and old Bollywood songs—is an antic journey through post-Independent India’s lost socialist and collectivist aspirations. The Non-Aligned Movement, Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, the leftist National Federation of Indian Women all feature—this last having a special personal interest: Sagar’s grandmother, Anasuya Gyan-Chand, was once president of the organization.
It’s true that socialism, Nehru’s guiding light, is today almost entirely out of favor with the country’s elite and ascendant middle class (it’s very much alive in the various marginalized demographics). But this sushi-board approach is no way to excavate a lost tradition. What’s desperately missing here is any sense of the immense consequences, both political and philosophical, of India’s turn toward neoliberalism. At best the film amounts to an exercise in historical fetishism. It’s a sort of academic show and tell.
Other names could be cited. These have special interest: Mohaiemen speaks freely about his debt to Akomfrah, while the Otolith Group curated a major touring retrospective of BAFC’s films in 2007.23 (Eshun, by the way, is one of the talking heads featured in The Last Angel of History.)
If their work bears the mark of the older filmmaker, which aspect of his legacy are they extending? Certainly, the guerilla documentary work and stormy montages of early BAFC have been done away with. Rigor of thought might be stressed on the surface—and at the seminars—but it’s mutated into something hipper and less demanding. What’s proved seductive to contemporary archival artists is the opulent surfaces, high production values, diffuse globalism, and general twilight atmosphere of late Akomfrah. Their work might have histographical value, but not for the reasons they think.
1. Amelia Gentleman, “The Children of Windrush: I’m here legally, but they’re asking me to prove I’m British,’” Guardian, Apr. 15, 2018, theguardian.com.
2. See William Davies, “Weaponising Paperwork,” London Review of Books, May 10, 2018, pp. 13–14.
3. Amelia Gentleman, “Windrush victims voice shock at scandal’s political consequences,” Guardian, May 1, 2018, theguardian.com.
4. See Salman Rushdie, “Outside the Whale,” Granta, no. 11, March 1984, and Edward Said, “Always on Top,” London Review of Books, Mar. 20, 2003.
5. See Sukhdev Sandhu, “John Akomfrah,” 4Columns, June 29, 2018, 4columns.org, and Zoe Whitley, “Geography Lessons: Mapping the Slide-Tape Texts of Black Audio Film Collective, 1982–84,” in John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire, New York, New Museum, 2018, pp. 8–13.
6. Some of the big names here are Rasheed Araeen, Lubaina Himid, Donald Rodney, and Roshini Kempadoo. For an account of Hall’s relations with the group, see Glenn Jordan, “Beyond essentialism: On Stuart Hall and Black British Arts,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 19, 2016, pp. 11–17.
7. Stuart Hall, “Minimal Selves,” in Identity: The Real Me: Postmodernism and the Question of Identity, London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1987, p. 44. These lines are quoted in The Unfinished Conversation (2012).
8. Sukhdev Sandhu, “John Akomfrah: migration and memory,” Guardian, Jan. 20, 2012, theguardian.com.
9. Akomfrah was expelled from his first high school for organizing student occupations. See Kobena Mercer, “Becoming Black Audio: An interview with John Akomfrah and Trevor Mathison,” Black Camera, Spring 2015, pp. 79–93.
10. Sandhu, “John Akomfrah,” 4columns.
11. In 1998, Akomfrah, Lawson, and Gopaul founded Smoking Dog Films. All his subsequent work has been associated with that production house.
12. John Akomfrah, quoted in “John Akomfrah in Conversation with Gary Carrion-Murayari,” in John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire, p. 109.
13. Aram Moshayedi puts it this way in his catalogue essay (referring to Handsworth Songs): “The film’s emphasis on an existing trove of readymade images and interviews mines the history of the recent past and uses the visual source materials of domination as a means by which a new narrative approach might access unspoken truths contained within. (Akomfrah stresses) the power of images to assemble a record of the past—as a form of raw material, as data, and as a visual information within which poetic truths are embedded beyond the realm of what’s made visible.” Aram Moshayedi, “A Mysterious Time Traveler Returns,” in John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire, p. 34.
14. In 2011 Tate Modern screened Handsworth Songs as part of a program reflecting on the August riots of that year. The late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, a longtime champion of BAFC, reported on the event for Sight & Sound. He was struck by the film’s prophetic political insights. “The continuities between the 80s and now impose themselves on the contemporary viewer with a breathtaking force,” he wrote. “Just as with the recent insurrections, the events in 1985 were triggered by police violence; and the 1985 denunciations of the riots as senseless acts of criminality could have been made by Tory politicians yesterday.” Mark Fisher, “The Land Still Lies: Handsworth Songs and the English Riots,” Sight & Sound, September 2011, bfi.org.uk.
15. Here’s a good sample: “Coketown . . . contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.” Charles Dickens, Hard Times: A Novel, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1854, p. 32.
16. Okwui Enwezor, “The Wreck of Utopia: Alienation and Disalienation in John Akomfrah’s Postcolonial Cinema,” in John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire, p. 83.
18. Or the inverse. In The Nine Muses (2010), another water-logged film, Akomfrah wheels in passages from Milton, Homer, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and even Samuel Beckett that ostensibly explain or resonate with the experience of migration.
19. John Akomfrah, “Mnemosyne,” Art in America, November 2014, p. 49.
20. See, for eample, Diana Nawi, “Rising and Falling: John Akomfrah’s Transfigured Night,” in John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire, pp. 58–63.
21. Salman Rushdie, “Song Doesn’t Know the Score,” Guardian, January 1987. Stuart Hall offered a spirited response in the letters pages of the paper.
22. Okwui Enwezor’s “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” which was on view at the International Center for Photography in New York in 2008, was an important gathering of such work.
23. “The Ghosts of Songs,” BAFC’s first a major touring exhibition and monograph retrospective, opened at the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool.