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Image of John Akomfrah, Peripeteia, 2012

Jarman Award Shortlist Artist Profile: John Akomfrah

Date posted: 08.10.2014

Akomfrah, whose practice is focused on memory and identity in moving image works that explore and challenge concepts of black culture, is speaking at the gallery on Sunday 2 November.

See work by all of the artists at a gallery near you with our Jarman Award tour

About the artist

John Akomfrah's acclaimed practice spans 30 years. He is most well known for pushing the boundaries of the documentary form, and pioneering the film essay format with early works such as Handsworth Songs (1986) and Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993). His practice began when he co-founded the seminal Black Audio Film Collective with friends in 1982. Together, they challenged traditional artistic practices to better represent multicultural identities.

Akomfrah has exhibited widely at international museums and galleries. In 2012, he released The Stuart Hall Project, a documentary on the life and work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall that received cinema distribution and showed at Festivals around the world. Autograph ABP commissioned John Akomfrah's three-screen installation version, The Unfinished Conversation, which was shown in galleries including Tate Britain in 2013.

John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project, 2013. Courtesy of the artist and Smoking Dogs Films.

The first substantial presentation of his recent work in a US museum is showing at the Broad Art Museum in Michigan and he will be presenting a looped installation of his work Tropikos at the It's All About The River film festival in Guildhall on Friday.

What Jarman means to Akomfrah

"I think I am probably one of the few people who knew Derek Jarman nominated this year" laughs Akomfrah when asked what the Award means to him. And it's important for another reason too:  "Jarman had an impact...on my generation. He was the figure who really gave shape to what I would call a punk aesthetic".

In an interview with The Guardian in 2012, Akomfrah recalled trying to screen Jarman's homoerotic Sebastiane at a film club in Southwark in the 1970s, and the outrage it caused amongst the all-black audience. It's an event that inspired him to challenge what is 'appropriate', and push the boundaries of  what made a 'good' piece of art for a black artist and a black audience.

Jarman, too, was pushing boundaries, and his work was politically infused from the beginning. He embodied a zeitgeist that Akomfrah ran with - where you applied an ambition to your practice, regardless of the materials or finances that you had to hand.

Integrated practice

In the 1980s, as part of the Black Audio Film Collective, Akomfrah worked with artists across a spectrum of approaches and genres including theatre, music, cinema and painting. He says of the collective, "[We were] bound by a belief that we could all make a difference with our work. We had to bond and band together to achieve the changes".

His practice changed with the production of Handsworth Songs in 1986, a film that opened up a new world of international film festival circuits, university lectures and art exhibitions. The change was unexpected, but it was, Akomfrah explains, an opportunity for the group to "proselytise for a black film culture in this country".

John Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs. Courtesy of the artist and Smoking Dogs Films.


The key questions Akomfrah addresses through his work relate to  representation, identity, narrative, the rise of 'Britishness', and national forms of address.

"The archival is one of the historical inventories of diasporic identities" said Akomfrah, talking about his use of such images, "if you want a Black history in this country, the archive is the monument". For him, the archive becomes a way to discuss and explore the concepts of identity.

About the award

"It's a fantastic pleasure for your peers and the world in which you operate in to say 'we think you're worth highlighting'", says Akomfrah on the Jarman Award. And it's not only an opportunity to keep people interested in his vast work produced over the past three decades, but also an opportunity to introduce his work to a brand new audience.

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