John Akomfrah’s U.S. debut is an unusual kind of attention-grabber, holding you fixed because it is so low key. The show features just six photographs and two video installations, both of which are fairly slow-moving. They are inspired by a weighty topic: the recent migrant crisis in Greece. On the whole, Lisson’s risk on tough work by an artist mostly unknown to Americans pays off.
Akomfrah has spent most of his career making essay films. In 1982, the British artist cofounded Black Audio Film Collective, whose films examined such topics as diasporas, colonialism, and police brutality—issues that are deeply contemporary.
Since the collective disbanded in 1998, Akomfrah has taken up multichannel video installations as his medium, and his work continues to be incisive and of the moment. With the two video installations here, The Airport and Auto Da Fé (all works 2016), Akomfrah, himself an immigrant from Ghana, considers the flow of people across nations—the tangled crisscross of religions, ethnicities, and races that has come to define virtually every part of the globe. (Also on view is a set of photographs, but these are basically stills—salable objects made from hard-to-market videos.)
Akomfrah’s focus in The Airport is the Greek economic and migrant crises. Shot partially in an abandoned airport outside Athens, this sad, poetic work features an astronaut who observes travelers waiting for an airplane that we suspect will never come. It’s a surreal allegory that finds echoes in such formally rigorous films as Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Akomfrah often shows three perspectives across the three channels, editing them so that they never match up—his subjects are disparate, alienated people who have been broken by economic and political upheaval.
Auto Da Fé is rougher and less subtle, and also better. The two-channel installation is another time-traveling narrative, this one with many different players, all of whom are shown wandering around Barbados in slow motion. The video reenacts various historical events involving people exiled from their country because of their faith, beginning with Jews who had to immigrate to Bahai in 1680 because of religious persecution. Akomfrah ends the video in the not-too-distant past, with Syrians departing for Greece in 2015.
As the narratives implode, the timelines mingle, and characters from different centuries walk the same sunny landscape together. The sense of displacement is palpable; they’re in the wrong place and the wrong time. This, Akomfrah seems to say, is the condition of being an immigrant today. To portray that visually, he intersperses black-and-white footage of Syrian refugees. Barbados becomes something like a prison—a holding cell in the ocean of history. These immigrants can’t go home again.