John Akomfrah interviewed by Devika Girish – Caligari Press
6 April 2021
In the months since watching Handsworth Songs, I’ve revisited other works of the BAFC and Akomfrah—including Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993), The Last Angel of History (1995), and the superb The Stuart Hall Project (2013)—and found nourishment in their unique strategy of montage, which is fueled by an ethics of solidarity and a vision of time as always roiling; never finished. So when I was given free rein to pick an interviewee for this inaugural issue of Caligari, I decided to use it as an excuse to get Akomfrah on the phone and have him help me make sense of this exceptional period. To my great luck and delight, Akomfrah accepted, and we ended up chatting on Zoom on a morning in February. He was busy preparing for his new exhibition, The Unintended Beauty of Disaster, which is showing from April 13 to June 5 at Lisson Gallery in London and comes to the venue’s New York location in the fall. But Akomfrah graciously spared me an hour of enriching conversation on the pandemic, the political place of art, the language of protest, the philosophical imperatives of montage, the necessity of dialoguing with history, and much more. Our discussion has been edited and condensed below.
Devika Girish: Where have you been this last year—emotionally and artistically?
John Akomfrah: Most of the time, I try to be pretty centered. I try to have intellectual, affective connections between the disparate bits of me: the working self, the family person. I try to ethically bring them all together. But this is an interesting moment because the two pandemics have forced disjunctions into these things. My lives don’t quite align; there’s a tension between what I want to do, what I can do, what I think should happen, and so on. Part of it is that I’ve never lived through a period where I’ve felt more helpless in the face of so many complicated things. Paradoxically, I’ve also never felt so powerful. I think that’s to do with the overlap of the two pandemics, the medical one and the racial one. Because if you told me a year and a half ago that there would be a set of major demonstrations across Europe, organized by young people of color—and by young, I mean really young, 17 or 18-year-olds—in the name of black lives… I didn’t think I would see that. The two emotional things sit together: a sense of helplessness in the face of the medical pandemic and a kind of hopefulness with the racial one.
Read the full interview via Caligari Press
Image: still from The Stuart Hall Project (2013) © Smoking Dogs Films