John Akomfrah premiered his debut film, Handsworth Songs (1986), at a time of great ferment in British cinema, as it confronted a political landscape of anti-racist struggle, the beginnings of the AIDS crisis and the Thatcherite attack on organized labor. At the same time as Isaac Julien, Sally Potter and Hanif Kureishi were beginning their careers, Akomfrah helped form the Black Audio Film Collective, brought to international prominence by the success of Handsworth Songs.
Over the subsequent decades, Akomfrah has continued to combine experimental and political cinema while creating a body of work that covers nearly every genre of the moving image imaginable: documentary, experimental, fiction, essay film, video art, installation, TV series and all their various combinations and permutations. What binds this work together is an attention to the history of Black culture in the Anglophone world over the past few centuries, with a special attention to the recent histories of modernity and postmodernity.
Born in Ghana in 1957 and educated in England from a young age, Akomfrah has become a cinematic counterpart to such commentators of and contributors to the culture of the Black diaspora as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Greg Tate and Henry Louis Gates. In doing so, he has continued to mine the audiovisual archive of the 20th century, recontextualizing these images not only by selecting and juxtaposing them but also through the addition of eloquent and allusive text. In Memory Room 451 (1997), Akomfrah speaks of memories become dreams and vice versa. In similar fashion, his films use found footage to create cinematic poetry and then use this poetry to tell history afresh.
Akomfrah’s method is both to mark the achievements of leading cultural and political figures while capturing fragments of ordinary Black lives that would otherwise be lost to the winds of history. It is from this interweaving that his work achieves its sense of urgency and its complex emotional impact.
The HFA welcomes Mr. Akomfrah and his partner and producer, Lina Gopaul to the HFA for two enlightening evenings of films and conversation. — David Pendleton