Lisbon - Interviews

“In the Middle is a Good Place to Be”: an Interview with John Akomfrah

9 months ago

On the occasion of the press preview held at the Museu Coleção Berardo for the film screening of “Purple“, we interviewed London based artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah.

Giulia Capaccioli: Before talking about the current exhibition, I’d like to talk about the beginning of your career. In 1982 you founded the Black Audio Film Collective and then co-founded in 1998, together with Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, Smoking Dogs Films.Tell us about the origin of these projects. How did the idea come about? And how did you meet your collaborators?

John Akomfrah: Black Audio Film Collective was made up of eight people from different areas of interest but all related to humanities. Most of us met in what is now Portsmouth University but about half of us had known each other since the late 70s, when we were young students. We were all studying things that suggested that you go out on your own, to make your own work. But I think that we must have known this unconsciously and deduced that things were not going to be completely successful on an individual basis. It was a kind of premonition that we needed to work together, and in fact things generally seem to work better when we were working collectively and that was the case culturally, certainly the case politically and aesthetically as well.
That sense of having a manifesto around which a group of friends or at least acquaintances could work together seemed the best way forward. But at some point either you achieve something that is on your list or someone on the other side doesn’t agree… and by 1997 we had a combination of those things. Because, you know, when we got together in 1982 the idea of a Black Collective of artists was a conceptual impossibility, it just hadn’t been explored before but by 95/96 it was clear that we could do it. Many of the people who weep in it were not necessarily interested in pursuing time based work and that’s why I then became part of a new collective Smoking Dogs Films. It was based on a joke that was told us by a friend about laboratory dogs in a tobacco factory. And it seemed to be so similar to the position where we were in because everyone was fed up in a way and we were also located in a lab where you couldn’t stop smoking… (that’s why I smoke electronic cigarettes now! He laughs…)

Giulia Capaccioli: In Purple, you explore the effects of climate change and its consequence for biodiversity on the planet’s different communities through both archival footage and newly shot film. When was the moment you felt the urgency to investigate the relationship between man and nature? Where do you position yourself between nature and humanity?

John Akomfrah: The distinction between nature and culture as a demarcation is very recent in historical terms, three, four centuries ago and into that demarcation natives and people of colour were thrown somewhere in the middle. For most of the last century people of colour were fighting to take themselves out of this inter zone to become human. I am now really keen to explore what is like to sit in that middle space out of choice. I think you have insights into the demarcation itself, the division that is necessary and important to understand when you sit in the middle. I’m not trying to say that everything is the same but I don’t believe anymore that there’ s a hierarchy of being at which some human being sits at the top of this apex. In the middle is a good space to be, in the middle is a space where someone grasps the distinction between the natural and the cultural. And I think is important to not have this binary of what constitutes the natural and what constitutes the cultural in which culture is always above and nature is underneath…. It’s not an interesting way to look at the planet! Of course it matters to me that carbon monoxide emissions are poisoning the planet but I’m not only interested in carbon monoxide emissions just because it affects human beings but I’m looking to see how that shapes how we behave on a planetary or global level as part of a chain, this is what is important for me to understand, the chain of things.

Giulia Capaccioli: In order to make this work you undertook a lengthy trip to the most remote islands in the world. Could you tell us about this experience?

John Akomfrah: Wether it was just me or me and my collaborators in Tahiti or in Greenland or Iceland it is important to me to experience these journeys as conversations with place. I don’t really go anywhere to film, I go to place because I want them to talk to me to greet these places, I know it sounds a bit hippy but places do have a way of registering your presence and they carry that, you can feel that when in a place hasn’t had many people through it and in many of the remote places we visited you could simply feel that they just hadn’t had many encounters with ‘us’. I mean…quite different to the landscape London or Lisbon (he laughs). So it’s an interesting thing to do when trying to make a global survey, to just go to places open minded and open ended. My ambition is for me to be simply In a place.

Giulia Capaccioli: You have also a special relationship with water….

John Akomfrah: Yes, water is an index of time, it marks our experience of time really well. You know all this time based work like this is artifice, it’s a construction. As for the sound of water, do you know how many different sounds of water there are in each of these six screens? There are at least 60 different sounds of water to create that liquidity.
I try to maintain a certain fidelity to the things that we either film or collect. I try to be faithful to the imprint they make on me. I normally film without sound but I make some recordings just to remember how the things sounded and then we recreate it after. It’s a promise I make to each moment, which I have to pay for afterwards and I do this in a way that allows the viewer to not have to sit there and question or doubt the truth of that moment. I don’t want viewers to view Purple and feel an inadequacy to the imagery which is voiced by the sound, it’s important that they feel that the two films are in some kind of conversation with whoever is experiencing it.

Giulia Capaccioli: So it has been three years of filming?

John Akomfrah: Yes, pretty much but not constant. It’s very much a mosaic of different impressions.

Giulia Capaccioli: Tell us about Greenland, for example?

John Akomfrah: Well I have friends living in Greenland, and they were telling me about the disappearance of glacier in the area they live and when I went there I was actually able to see the disappearance of the ice, it’s pretty clear. But it’s not necessarily something that can be shown. Cinema is about the event and always struggles with memory, moving images struggle with time because they appear to be telling a tale of time, but it is always in the present so the passage of time is difficult to give back and demonstrate. So it’s difficult to show climate change, unless I went over a 10 year time period or with time-lapse, so you have to find other means by which you say this and this, basically, is what I am trying to do with my work.

Giulia Capaccioli: You live and work in London, what is your relationship like with the city? Which places do you enjoy the most and where do you spend most of your time?

John Akomfrah: At the moment I’m slightly disenchanted with it, I’ve lived in London almost all my conscious life, I moved there from Ghana at the age 5, so I’ve lived there through all the different ages and the emotional states in my life from my childhood to the present. So I know it very well but more importantly it knows me very well. But I’m kind of disenchanted with it now because there’s something almost cataclysmic in the change in London now. People who are younger than me and who are growing up in the area where I live will not be able to have the relationship that I’ve had with the city because the city is becoming a bit like Manhattan. It’s just not affordable anymore…
But there are places I love…if I had to take a fragment of my life I would take the one where I’m standing on Primrose Hill looking down, for example, something I’ve filmed many times or driving through the outskirts on the north circular in the early morning is a beautiful feeling and tell us something about the quality of light at that time of the day and that semi abandoned state in which London finds itself is just great. I’m also quite sad about the passing of the London that I grew up in, that’s almost all now gone and that change I fear is irreversible.
Nevertheless there are signposts of change, things and people coming and going, the flight of manuality…I don’t think there are many places left in London where people use their own hands to do anything anymore. Manufacturing areas are gone…A certain kind of tactile relationship with life is not now a feature of London life, everybody is involved in something that doesn’t involve them… so we are locked into this relationship with the outside.
But it’s an extraordinary city. There are more than 9 million people in the city but it doesn’t feel like it, the city is made up of a series of can go for one year without going to a certain area. I’ve lived in Newington Green since the late 80s but I grew up in West London…

Giulia Capaccioli

  • John Akomfrah John Akomfrah
  • John Akomfrah, John Akomfrah, "Purple", Exhibition view, Museu Coleção Berardo, 2018
  • John Akomfrah, John Akomfrah, "Purple", Exhibition view, Museu Coleção Berardo, 2018
  • John Akomfrah, John Akomfrah, "Purple", Exhibition view, Museu Coleção Berardo, 2018
  • John Akomfrah, John Akomfrah, "Purple", Exhibition view, Museu Coleção Berardo, 2018

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John Akomfrah