John Akomfrah – an interview

Negarra A. Kudumu interviewed John Akomfrah for Art Radar Journal. (29 March 2016)

I’m interested in the fossils, fragments, debris from the past for two reasons: one, the interest is to do with the question of context. These are contested legacies in which the fragment in question has usually been used to speak a certain absolutist truth. “This is England”, for instance, “and England was always white”. Or “This is England and England is mono-cultural” or “This is England and it was a great power, which civilised savages.” You’re aware that when you enter into the debate with the historical record there are, in other words, a set of contested narratives that you’re confronted by. So part of the project is simply to take seriously this question of context, to see in what ways fragments from the past can be commandeered to speak more ambivalently about the present and about how the present became if you like.

But there’s a sort of, for me, a more pressing, personal question because I think generally when you are a figure of a diaspora what that says is that you are in a space in which very few of the monuments that write that place into being acknowledge your presence. There’s no Trafalgar Square for people of colour in this country. The historic fragment in its archival variety becomes paradoxically one’s inheritance, one’s heritage. It’s one of the few spaces where you find things that attest to your presence. So if you look at 17th century England generally the things that attest to there being an African presence in this country at the time will be books or paintings or, very rarely, buildings or towns. So it becomes imperative for the artist, or for the figure who enters into the archive to be aware of the Janus faced nature of the archival past, the residues of the archival past, because they both speak an official memory.

Shakespeare is the English language’s greatest poet but Shakespeare is also, in the Tempest, one of the few texts from that period that hints at this sense that what we understand to be England may well have been forged by an encounter with the Caribbean. Both are important, in a way, to the practice. It’s not that I want to suggest that Shakespeare is just a great white male and he isn’t any good for me, or that he needs to be replaced by something I like. I think he’s that too but there’s other stuff there that one could work with.

So that is generally my interest in the archive. It’s about looking, using it to look at spaces or contexts, using it to look at ways in which one might reinsert a black subject into a narrative in which he or she is assumed to be absent from. And those come with ethical implications. It’s like when you try to put people in something – nations, groups, identities – the question of why you do it is important. And those ethical questions are as important for me as the aesthetic ones.

…another Akomfrah interview, BFI (8 June 2015).

Arnolfini, Bristol.

…of note : Emmanuel Lubezki, cinemaphotographer.