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Exhibition brings together three seminal works by John Akomfrah
John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012. Three channel video installation, 7.1 sound 45 minutes 48 seconds © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid.

GATESHEAD.- BALTIC is presenting John Akomfrah: Ballasts of Memory, bringing together three seminal works by the London-based artist, whose moving image works have offered some of the most rigorous and expansive reflections on the culture of the black diaspora, both in the UK and around the world. Exploring the development of his practice over the past decade, the exhibition features the European premiere of Akomfrah’s film Precarity (2017), alongside The Unfinished Conversation (2012) and Psyche (2012).

Akomfrah began his practice in the early 1980s as a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, who he still collaborates with today. They were pioneering in their injection of narratives of black British history and culture into popular media through documentaries made for British television. Throughout the 1990s, Akomfrah’s subject matter expanded beyond the social fractures of contemporary British society to focus on a wider historical context, from the persistent legacy of colonialism to the roots of the contemporary in classical literature. Moving into the early 2000s, Akomfrah also produced a series of atmospheric works addressing personal and historical memory.

Originally commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, New Orleans, Akomfrah’s film Precarity makes its European debut at BALTIC this summer. The piece expands on a number of thematic concerns that appear throughout his entire body of work: the legacies of slavery and forced human migration, the diasporic experience, colonialism, and climate change. In Precarity, Akomfrah’s signature cinematic style is used to convey the tragic story of Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden, a turn-ofthe-century cornet player credited as being a part of the origins of jazz music in New Orleans. A legend among early jazz musicians in Louisiana, Bolden’s significance to the genre has been excised from history due to his struggle with schizophrenia and subsequent institutionalisation in 1907 at the age of 30. After his hospitalisation, Bolden was never seen in public again and died in 1931.

Precarity is as much a ghost story as it is a portrait of a historical figure. It is also a lyrical exploration of the city that gave rise to jazz – a development that owed itself, in large part, to New Orleans’ position as a cultural crossroads between the North and South. The film presents a sonic and visual history of Bolden and his legend, the emergence of jazz and the city of New Orleans. With its constant footage of moving currents, water materialises as a recurring theme in the film. We are reminded of the extent to which New Orleans is a city ‘tormented by water’. Sequences depict broken homes, flooded fields and empty warehouses, along with archival footage of breached levées from the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood, which in turn recalls the devastation that was caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The film traces a single life disrupted by the violent forces of racism, state power and the consequences of displacement within the African-American context. Akomfrah’s dynamic, yet discontinuous expression of the life and legacy of one individual ‘disappeared’ and rendered ’precarious’ by the violent forces of history and state power, reveals the inability of black individuals to have agency within history.

The Unfinished Conversation explores the personal and public archive of acclaimed cultural theorist and political activist Stuart Hall (1932–2014). For Hall, identity and ethnicity are not fixed, but are the subject of an ‘ever-unfinished conversation’. Unfolding over three screens, in the film Hall discusses his discovery of his personal and political identities. Arriving in Britain from Jamaica as a student in 1951, by 1968 he would be one of the founding figures of the new left, a key architect of cultural studies and one of Britain’s foremost public intellectuals. Stuart Hall’s writings on power and the state, serve as vital texts and an important touchstone for future generations of black artists working in Britain.

Akomfrah weaves issues of cultural identity using a wide range of references that combine his biography with footage filmed in Jamaica, whilst connecting this to historical events. These include references to William Blake, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Mervyn Peake, movements within jazz and gospel, set alongside news footage from the 1960s and 1970s. Identifying with Hall, Akomfrah said: ‘To hear Stuart Hall speak about what it is to be different in society… gave you a sense not simply of self, but of agency, of what you could do with your life’.

The third work in this exhibition, Psyche, explores the importance of the face in film as a means to convey history. ‘From the face will come the truth of the event’, reads one of the work’s titles. Akomfrah presents enduring images of anguish and grief repeated over three screens through a montage of scenes taken from films that have influenced him, such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, Sergei M. Eisenstein’s Qué viva México! (1979), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and Peter Watkin’s Culloden (1964).

The title of the exhibition Ballasts of Memory is taken from a phrase used by Akomfrah to explain why history matters. Speaking about the archive and the role of memory to keep things alive and in the public consciousness, Akomfrah has said ‘one does need the ballast of memory, and the historical, just to come to balance.’

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