As he celebrates turning 60 this year, John Akomfrah can look back on an impressive artistic career that has garnered him prestigious honors and awards, including his appointment as Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2008. Born in Accra, Ghana, but living in the United Kingdom since he was four years old, Akomfrah is an artist, filmmaker, theorist and curator who works primarily in video. His works highlights the power of place, memory and history, as it focuses on post-colonialism and the black diaspora in Europe and the United States.
Some of his significant recent works include 2012’s “The Unfinished Conversation,” a three-screen installation that depicts the life and work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall, and 2010’s “Mnemosyne,” which relates the hardships and racism experienced by migrants in the United Kingdom. In 2015, his epic, three-screen installation “Vertigo Sea” juxtaposed scenes from the horrific whaling industry with those of migrants crossing the ocean in search of a better life, using both original materials and archival footage.
One of Akomfrah’s most recent works, 2016’s “Tropikos,” is now showing at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami. The film, which is composed solely of original materials and shot in high-definition, is an experimental drama that relates a fictional encounter between British explorers and African people during the 16th century. The setting of the film – the Tamar Valley in southwestern England – is significant in and of itself: this is where the first British slaving excursion set sail for Africa.
The film scenes are mostly still and silent, with Akomfrah’s artistic lens panning over various characters and vistas, while mixing people and objects from both European and African contexts. The setting of the film, the Tamar Valley, never changes, but the powerful presence of Africans, seemingly out of place in 16th-century Britain, suggests that British history (and by extension the history of the entire West) will always be linked to the places and people that were once colonized and enslaved.
In Akomfrah’s own words, “Tropikos” and previous works of his look at “ways fragments from the past can be commandeered to speak more ambivalently about the present” and “about how the present became.”
“Tropikos” is on view until August 27 at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami.