John Akomfrah on Ghana in Venice / Interview D.Y. Ngoy

In SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue

« The provocation exist, because we still have to continue to find locations and spaces of brilliance, excellence and challenge for artists from Africa and its Diaspora, in the face of indifference to their worth by other institutions. I think there is absolute legitimacy to that, given the current arrangement of the Biennial’s universe. »

– John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah is a culturally and politically astute London-based visual artist. His early works such as Handsworth Songs (1987), chiefly commissioned for television, enabled him to experiment with the infinite possibilities of visuals. At later stages of his artistic career, he gradually focused on presenting his moving image installations in galleries. These new settings, not only allowed him to expand his early experiments on visuals further, such as the use of archival materials & reels, but most crucially it gave him the freedom to also test sonic materials in unconventional ways.
Most of his works engage with social issues relevant to our time, such as ecology (Vertigo Sea, a three-screen film installation, shown at the 56th Venice Biennale in May 2015) or deportation and slavery (Auto Da Fe, two-screen video installation 2016).
His multi-disciplinary works are informed by different sources, stretching from cinema, to paintings, through music (especially Black Classical Music also known as Jazz). He has been the recipient of numerous awards, the latest being Artes Mundi (2017). Our conversation took place a few weeks ahead of the inauguration of the first-ever Ghanaian pavilion in the 58th Venice Biennale, 11 May to 24 November 2019.

DY NGOY: So you are going to take part in the Ghanaian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2019?

John Akomfrah: The idea proposed to me by David Adjaye, (the late) Okwui Ewenzor and Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, was to do something that constitutes the pavilion out of a set of symmetries; namely young and old, a certain kind of gender parity, but also some parity between artists based in Ghana and those of Ghanaian diaspora. So that was broadly the platform I agree to take part in. 

In the 21st century, in the era of globalisation, and fluidity of ideas and human migrations, what is the relevance of national pavilions? I think for the established pavilions that go biennially to Venice, this is a legitimate question. But it is a slightly different one for the emerging ones.
For me, a Ghanaian pavilion is a two-prompt provocation. On the one hand, it is about challenging the advanced world consensus with its assumptions about the locality of artists and the legitimacy of the spaces that are available to the art world. Basically to the extent that, in general, someone like El Anatsui is not going to be in the Finish Pavilion or the Serbian Pavilion any time soon. The provocation exist, because we still have to continue to find locations and spaces of brilliance, excellence and challenge for artists from Africa and its Diaspora, in the face of indifference to their worth by other institutions. I think there is absolute legitimacy to that, given the current arrangement of the Biennial’s universe. It seems to me that artists of colour from across the continent for instance, will still need the hospitality, let’s put it that way, that a pavilion provides in that biennale’s settings. I hope that there are many more from the continent in the future.  

When one looks at the curatorial practice, and the curator/artist rapport, at times it looks as if it has reached a peak, a conundrum. Exhibitions have become over thematic. Hence can we speak about the relationship between artists and curators?  When one thinks about that relationship, the ideas of both contact zone & overlap come to mind. However there is a certain caution since I don’t believe in the curatorial gesture, although I see the need for it. You can see how Okwui with The Short Century did that, without that curatorial gesture, and then bringing together things, which had up to then not been brought together in that way! The event wouldn’t have happened! Okwui was one of the first people who pioneered the use of moving image work, especially from people like myself, inside the art world. He didn’t start it, the works Handsworth Songs, Testament and the rest, have always been in gallery spaces, ever since they were made, but he certainly took them up in a way that suggested that this was now our permanent invitation for those works to be in that space. And without that voice, without that signature of his, it wouldn’t have happened. Did he create those works? No (laughts) and I think that tension is necessary and should be permanent. I don’t like the idea that people make work just to illustrate certain curatorial imperatives. That’s not what we want, that’s not what it’s about! So it was very clear in the case of this particular pavilion (Ghana Pavilion) that yes the theme is freedom, but that is just the starting point for everyone to explore in their own ways what that term means to them. I believe that we should continue to have this necessary tension. You are not going to be able to get away from an unfettered access to shows or biennials without the curatorial presence because that’s what is licensing many of these openings, in the first place.

But I don’t see it as a problem provided that artists involved don’t see their work as merely a reproduction of that curatorial rhetoric. It is important for people to have things that they want to say, independent of that curatorial gesture, it is important to have ways of wanting to be with the world, that are not the ones being licensed by a curator, however important the curator is. And the very important curators understand that tension and the importance of the relative autonomy of the artwork from their own naming.

John Akomfrah The Elephant in the Room. Nocturnesis. Co-commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Ghana, Sharjah Art Foundation and SmokingDogs Films with support from Lisson Gallery. Photo by David Levene.

It reminds me of the attitude in Bebop music, can we compare the brilliance of Okwui to those of Dizzy Gillespie & Charlie Parker. They didn’t invent Bebop, but had the genius to crystalize the vocabulary, which was in the air. Whereas, we all know that it was pianist/composer Thelonius Monk and pianist/composer Herbie Nichols who were the Godfathers of Be-Bop. (laughs!) Certainly if one is to think about musicians that he feels like from Classical Black Music, especially from the 40’s and 50’s, you are right. I think in a way it is probably easier to say who he isn’t. He was not Coltrane, not Bud Powell (laughs). I think he was one of those figures who like Dizzy Gillespie, always recognised the importance of the individual components in the ensemble. And allowed it to flourish, to grow. All the great jazz musicians, that we know, had that facility. Max Roach or Count Basie, bassist/composer Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, all of them had these phenomenal figures in the ensemble without whom it would not have worked as well as it did. Which suggests to me this question of collaboration and conversation in what we call improvisation, is an absolutely central motif for how we should understand the relationship between artist and curator. The question of collaboration is key. It’s not just a question of a cosmetic thing. It has to be something almost organic.

In your formative years as a multi-disciplinary artist, which figures were instrumental in helping you to formulate your vision as a creative artist? I have drawn over the years, from so many sources: theoretical, cultural. So there are people who meant a lot to me, from the world of cinema, for instance. I met (Med) Hondo, who just died, (Ousmane) Sembène of course, and the great Djibril Diop Mambéty, these are people I knew and I drew from. They are the African face of it. Then there was Chris Marker who was as important as Andrei Tarkovsky. There is a kind of prodigality into my feeding into cinema, which meant that I drew from a lot of places. But that is just the cinema, there is literature, paintings and of course music. Music has been a very important charismatic example. 

Can we delve a little bit about paintings as an influence? To be honest with you, at the beginning when I was 13/14 years old, if you had asked me what I was going to do, I would have said either a painter or an art historian! That was very much my aim. I loved some of the great figures that I encountered at the Tate. You can’t see a Turner without being absolutely struck, especially if you are interested in the form. You can’t see a Rothko, for the first time, without being completely overwhelmed by the sheer painterly scale, because that is when you begin to sense, that actually this practice can speak. When you grow up this becomes an almost self-evident tautological thing to say, but to learn very early that painting speaks to one, that they have things to say, not independent of the form, but through the form! This is a major revelation. When you see a Rothko for the first time, you realise that you are being moved by things that are not exterior to the piece but inside the thing itself. One of the reasons cinema mattered so much, was that it seemed to have this ability to marry fidelity to form as well as infidelity at the same time. When you watch some of the great pieces, they seem both formally really adventurous but also quite free, because that’s how the new thing always seems to emerge.
So for me, it was never a love affair, exclusively, with the moving image.

For example in the beginning, when we started to do stuff for television, people who funded it were always complaining at the excess of it (laughs). Just concentrate on the story, instead of the flourish of the colour, etc. This is what made me interested to make television in the first place and not the other way around!

The Unfinished Conversation 2012 John Akomfrah born 1957 Purchased jointly by Tate and the British Council with assistance from the Art Fund 2014

When one watches your moving image’s multi-channel installations such as Vertigo Sea (2015) & Purple (2017), what comes to mind are the following words: symphony, choreography, synch, symmetry, polyphony, polyrhythm. How do you respond to that? One of the ways, one could respond to that, is to go back to our conversation about music. And to stress this bizarreness that the multi-disciplinary channel pieces seem to have, which is what you were calling the symphonic mixed with the improvisatory. I am now really interested in works, which seem to have a kind of discursivity. Which seem to have an internal conversation to and fro to them. But they are also basically works, which are characterised by openness as well as rigidity. That’s the sort of thing that one got from an Ellington or a Monk. You watch Monk play, these are the qualities that most defines my attachment to the music that moves me. Monk is a good example of that. Everything appears simultaneously atonal, off key, lyrical, also rigid, the ways he hit the keys, you feel the rigidity also the importance of time and timing, at the same time as one gets the sense of disavowing the rigidity of time. I am broadly interested in the polyphonic, as a visual conceit, as a sort of aesthetic precept, in the different forms in which that comes, whether it is a call and response, freedom of abstraction and rigidity, however one wants to define the expression of the polyphonic. It is the expression of the percussive groove that I want for those pieces. The sense of internal combustibility! With all that the term combustible implies, which is something which is slightly out of control but also propulsive.

I want all these sources to be present, but erased at the same time. I want each piece – be it a piece of archive, a piece of music from somebody else, a young boy singing, or the tone of a woman’s voice from the Scottish highlands, the agreement is that they will have autonomy and anthology of their own right. But they have to participate, in a complicated way, in the game of unity. So symphonic is not bad a word for you to use, at all. It is certainly a good way of approaching the ambition of these pieces not necessarily the result of these pieces.

                                                              in SWAG high profiles, inaugural issue
                                                                Venice Biennale 2019
D.Y. Ngoy
April 2019