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John Akomfrah: Purple at the Barbican Curve
Image Credit: Still from John Akomfrah's Purple (c) Smoking Dogs Films. Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah: Purple at the Barbican Curve

6 December 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

The Curve Gallery at the Barbican often hosts innovative work by a wide variety of artists. This autumn it currently hosts a six-screen film installation by award-winning British artist John Akomfrah.


Image credit: John Akomfrah (c) Anthony Harvey Getty Images

Akomfrah has been making films since the 1980s. His debut film, Handsworth Songs, dealt with the race riots of London and Birmingham in 1985, signalling his commitment to contemporaneous politics and films that could represent it. As part of the Black Audio Film Collective he made experimental documentaries and films, with a particular on emphasis on memory, history and the black experience in UK.  He has made a series of award winning films, including The Nine Muses (2010) about Alaska and The Stuart Hall Project (2013) on the influential cultural theorist. He also set up Smoking Dog Films with some of his colleagues from the Black Audio Film Collective. He has been awarded both an OBE and CBE for his services to film.

His new film ‘Purple’ is an ambitious attempt to understand the ‘anthropocene’: the period of geological history in which we can assert the impact and effects of humans on the world.  Looking at grand themes like life and death, he also incorporates issue such as the encroachment of technology and industry. In an interview with the Barbican he describes he desire for this film to pose questions about the environment without being from the perspective of an expert, attempting to broaden out the conversation from abstract scientific language to concrete realities. In this, his work deals with the issue of locality: how can something seem real to us, if we can’t see it? How can we know climate change is happening, if it happens in places we don’t know? This desire to play with the local and global is felt throughout the film, in which he contrasts enormous icy landscapes or dense jungles, with day-to-day activities of people.

The film does not have a linear narrative, but is instead shaped by larger themes that move into one another; scenes of people on their way to work give way to enormous shots of the landscape, and then into footage taken from an old  British film, spread over six different channels. Akomfrah has always been interested in montage and collage, developing this method in the earliest days of his work with the Black Audio Film Collective. By using fragments of footage from diverse origins and juxtaposing them through editing, Akomfrah exposes the possibility to derive a third, new meaning.  Throughout the film, Akomfrah has made many intriguing decisions, contrasting scenes of birth, with traditional folk singing, dance rehearsals from the 1960s, or rituals undertaken in jungle canopies. Akomfrah not only makes connections between these disparate images, but seems to pose questions about the very nature of making linkages, of making something so vast as human experience linear. In a world as huge as ours, how could it be represented with a linear narrative, he seems to ask.   

For anyone familiar with Akomfrah’s work, the installation contains many reoccurring motifs, as well the fundamental similarity in the construction of the film through montage.  The image of the individual who stands with their back to the camera, looking out at the viewpoint is transported from his earlier film The Nine Muses, as well as 2015’s Vertigo Sea.  In these films, the anonymous individual looks out across the tundra, the jungle or the sea, their presence linking these landscapes together. But here he goes further, adding shots of a range of people young and old directly facing the camera under a towering electrical pylon.  By linking together his older work with new, the effects of the montage are felt over his whole oeuvre, asking the viewer to not only make connections between images, but inviting us to make them between his films too.  

In many of his choices of footage he shows that we cannot make nature ‘other’ to ourselves. Though the film is clearly interested in the effects of human technologies and industry, he also depicts nature as another part of our existence. This is communicated through his use of water: intercut throughout the films are scenes of photographs of people, and different bits of clothing, submerged under running water.  Our co-existence with nature is depicted as a necessary facet of our existence on the planet.

Akomfrah’s work is worth engaging with for its beauty and scope, as well as for its politics. Through making a complex film about the effects of the human on the environment, he also invokes the larger question about the possibilities of art in the face of overwhelming catastrophe, a question he can only ask but not answer.
 
Purple is at the Barbican Curve until 7 January 2018. Entrance free.
 


 

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