John Akomfrah in conversation with Anthony Downey

30 April 2014

In March 2014, Ibraaz and the Kamel Lazaar Foundation launched an online media partnership with Art Dubai 2014 for the eighth iteration of the Global Art Forum.

In this exclusive interview from Art Dubai, Ibraaz Editor-in-Chief Anthony Downey speaks to filmmaker and John Akomfrah about history, influences, and developing an identity for one’s culture.

Anthony Downey: Ladies and gentlemen, we are sitting here with the filmmaker and writer John Akomfrah. John has just been the last panellist on the ‘Meanwhile History’ conference here at the Global Art Forum at Art Dubai. John, you talked about many things and raised a lot of issues about history, such as alternative readings of history. One of the things you were talking about right from the outset was the notion of the ‘meanwhile’; what is it to exist meanwhile, what is it to exist in another space?

The thing that came to my mind was the way that the meanwhile became a place out of which emerged not only the other of history, but also the self of history; the Western version of history and the non-Western version of history. A quote from Frantz Fanon came to mind, where he writes in The Wretched of the Earth[1]: ‘Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.’ I’m wondering if that has any pertinence to you as a filmmaker, the suggestion that somehow the Third World didn’t come after Europe; the Third World predicates the emergence of Europe as a rational, humanist space.

John Akomfrah: Firstly, thank you Anthony for giving me the space to speak to you. We know (and we have known for a while) that what constitutes Western civility, especially around the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries – its foundational moments, if you will – did have what one would conventionally call ‘outside influences’ (Averroes and Ibn Khaldun, for example). Not only that, but that large swathes of what one would think of as stereotypes of Euro-modernity were in fact rehearsed in other theatres, which then migrated from those theatres to Europe. There is absolutely no question that this statement is now not a provocation but fact.

What’s interesting for me is why, in spite of that, we still persist with the binary or the dichotomy that somehow there is this space called Europe, formed, transcendental-like from the ashes of its own becoming. Why the fear of admitting that there was once a contamination or influence – call it what you will – and why the fear of acknowledging that this contamination resides elsewhere? There are obvious political and ethical reasons for this denial.

AD: I’m thinking of how that translates into your work; I first came across your work through the Black Audio and Film Collective, and the first film I saw was Handsworth Songs (1987), with the British Film Institute. It left an indelible mark upon me (and my psychology as well) because what this film was doing was taking a political issue – migration – but not reading it politically. It was reading it through an aesthetic sensibility. I’m wondering if that aesthetic sensibility has something to do with the ethical eye; the fact of looking becoming a political gesture in and of itself. I’m wondering if that predicated, to a certain extent, how that film unfolded, the research behind that film, and what that film has become in the lexicon of filmmaking itself?

JA: I’m always, now especially, surprised by the reception to Handsworth Songs – and I say that without any trace of modesty at all; it’s a genuine surprise to me. I’ve had to think quite a bit about why it was that the film seemed at a certain point to summarize a certain way of seeing and being in the world. I think if there are any intentions on our part – because half the time I’m not sure that there are intentions when people create things, even though they say so after the fact – it’s based on a number of ethical assumptions.

The main one is this: it is 1985, a number of second, third and fourth generation – post-migrant – children, along with their white colleagues, have taken to the streets, and they’ve burned, looted and laid certain places to waste. These are criminal acts; there’s no question about that, and nothing in Handsworth Songs suggests otherwise. But – and this is where the project of Handsworth Songs starts – at a certain point, somebody says ‘these are criminal acts’, emphatically, and they say it as if that’s all that one could say about those events.

We started on the assumption that you have to find a way of giving agency to a group of people, and you start by imagining this: no one saves up the equivalent of £50,000, which would probably take them two or three years to do, gets on a boat to travel, Homeric-fashion, thousands of miles, with the intention that when they get there they are going to start trouble. No one gets on a boat having saved this money to go somewhere, and then says to themselves ‘I am going to be the bearer of a dystopian history; I am going to have children and my children will be troublemakers, criminals, etcetera.’

In other words, the act of migration is a utopian gesture; so if at the point of arrival something goes wrong, it’s not in the act itself, because the act is an evocation of love. You don’t go anywhere you hate; if you go somewhere you hate, it’s because you don’t have a choice. But if you have made the choice to save to go somewhere, you are making a declaration of love. It was really working from that very modest ethical premise that we thought, let’s try and reconfigure what that utopian gesture might have been like.

Between the fissure, the break-rapture of a utopian will to be on the one hand, and the dystopian refusal to belong on the other, let’s see whether in that crack something might tell us how events like ‘riots’ take place; how it is that young children of colour disavow not just the quietude, the forbearance, of their parents, but also the strictures of their state, which says ‘thou shall not cause trouble’. They are making two cries, cris de coeur; they are saying to their parents ‘we don’t respect what you have been’, and to the state, ‘we absolutely do not respect what you are about.’ It’s that double-bind that we were trying to explore and excavate in Handsworth Songs, and I think that that’s what made it poignant for people.

AD: Just for our audience, Handsworth Songs is a very specific moment in time: it is 1985, it is Birmingham; Handsworth is a region in Birmingham that sees the worst riots in British history. We’ve seen worse since; we’ve seen Tottenham, we’ve seen Brixton, we’ve seen the London riots. But what you did there as part of the collective was almost create a new visual grammar, a new syntax, for understanding the potentiality to reengage with those issues and not just see them as criminal acts; to go to a source, a historical source, perhaps. What I’m wondering is what was influencing you visually at that moment in time, because that film couldn’t have come from nowhere – something had to be there. It re-enacts and becomes a different syntax for understanding migration and the problematic of migration, but what was lying behind it?

JA: The usual trajectory of all artists is you gather all these teachers and mentors – in our case Stuart Hall, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Luc Godard, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Chris Marker, the new Latin American cinema – and you think to yourself, why am I attached to these? What is it that they bring to the table that is attracting me to them in the first place? And you realize that all of them are in some way obsessed with the question of memory, refracted always differently in their work, but there’s clearly a kind of attachment to memory as muse, as source of inspiration for narrative.

The difficulty, I think, for everyone is the moment when, Apollo spaceship-like, you take off, because you’ve needed a propulsion of influence. It’s that moment when you say: ‘OK, you’re now holding me back, I have got to get rid of you as this tank.’ It’s a wonderful image when you see the Apollo take off and at a certain point it says –

AD: It emerges on its own trajectory then.

JA: Yes! That is the moment of enigma. I don’t know how and at what point it happens, but it necessarily must as a vulgar act, without which no new is possible. At a certain point you have to say to yourself: ‘I love Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), I love Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), but I’m not making The Mirror.’

AD: But you’re taking a visuality or a sensibility from that and applying it to something that not many people were looking at. You mentioned Stuart Hall and the pivotal, seminal importance of Stuart Hall for your generation. Certainly for my generation, coming to England in the late 80s, Stuart Hall’s work opened my eyes to the potentiality not only of theory but of thinking, clear thinking; how you could assess a situation in a manner in which it had never been considered before.

I’m thinking now as well of your most recent film The Unfinished Conversation (2012), also known as The Stuart Hall Project. I’m wondering – this must have been a labour of love, this could not have been an easy film for anyone to make, because, in effect, one is dealing with the father figure; one is dealing with the person who made a lot of what we do today possible. He is, effectively, the father of multicultural studies, but equally he transcends that.

Could you talk a little bit about how that film came into being, and what you see it as? Because it’s taking on a life of its own now; it’s transcending you. It’s being shown worldwide, it has garnered awards, and it will be shown tomorrow here in Sharjah. Can you talk a little bit about how it came into being and the importance of that, and where you see it going, or indeed, if you can?

JA: Thank you Anthony. I’ve said this several times but I think it’s worth saying again: the question of obligation is one that we should feel comfortable in acknowledging in our lives, because through the acknowledgement of one’s obligation to other figures, other histories, and so on, the acknowledgment of debt becomes valuable. The implication of acknowledging a debt is to accept that there has been a gift bestowed on you. The gift of Stuart’s was quite remarkable for my generation – and by my generation I’m not just talking about the demographic group of kids who were born in the late 50s and 60s, who came of age in the 70s and encountered this figure on television, largely – I didn’t realize he was an intellectual –

AD: Yes, through the Open University.

JA: Yes, on television. The charismatic example of this figure was extraordinary, because what you met if you were a geek, and a bookworm, no good at football, too short to play basketball, and just way too ugly to go womanizing, is you turn to books. To have this guy on British TV in the late 60s and early 70s, who clearly was one of us, as an act of affirmation of oneself was quite remarkable. So he certainly remained one of those figures who you knew had your back covered, unlike Tarkovsy.

AD: And he enabled something to happen that could not have happened prior to that.

JA: Yes, absolutely. But in my case, the specific gift was the invitation to him in ’85 during the making of Handsworth Songs, an invitation to him to come and have a look at it. We didn’t know him, he didn’t know us. We were in our early 20s, he had no reason to come and meet us (it was our first major film – we’d done installations before but nothing that big). But he came. And he kept coming and coming; he came at least eight or nine times to watch cut versions of the film, to engage us, to argue with us, and at the end of it I thought damn, this is quite an exceptional human being.

I mean, I had younger brothers who were 15 or 16 years old, and I didn’t even want to hang around with them, and they’re my brothers! There’s this guy in his 50s coming to hang around with a bunch of kids who didn’t know anything, except that they had this fervour to do something interesting. So the friendship begins from there. The importance of that charismatic example, and the acknowledgement of that charismatic example, starts for me in that period. I just thought, the end is coming –

AD: Because Stuart was quite unwell for some time?

JA: Yes. He was 82 when he died, but had been seriously unwell for about a decade – all manner of things which I won’t go into, but it was clear that the end was nigh. So between a number of us we decided that we might, one more time – once more unto the breach, as Henry V would say – take him on that journey, and the idea was to work with him on a project about the status of the image in our late modernity.

That’s in fact what started, but about a year into looking at stuff, researching it, he said I’m too tired and too unwell to this, you’re going to have to continue on your own. You can come back, and by all means we’ll talk, but come back. It’s at that moment of his disavowal of our comradeship that we thought: the fact that you’ve taken yourself out of the game means that you can be the subject. Up to that point it was us working together on something, but the moment he withdrew he became the subject.

AD: There’s a distance that’s created that allows you creativity with Stuart Hall, and the image of Stuart Hall, and what he became.

JA: Yes. So what we have are two iterations – two incarnations, if you like – of the Stuart Hall archive as project. One is The Unfinished Conversation, which is really about this idea that emerges in most of his writings that identities emerge at that junction of the psychic and the historic, that all identities are created at this junction. The Unfinished Conversation was an attempt to use that on his life to see how much that might apply to his own formation. So it goes really from childhood and the 30s through to ’68 when that question is resolved, and then the piece ends (as a three-screen piece).

The second project is The Stuart Hall Project (2013), which is a single-channel piece made specifically for the cinema (it is shown in galleries but the onus was to try and get it into the cinema). It returns to the question of biography again, but this time the figure of Stuart Hall converses not with himself – not the psychic and the historic – but with the outside world. We wanted to find out the extent to which, as you watched his evolution on television and radio over a 50-year period, one discerns or not the Stuart Hall that we know now. And of course that’s what happens, because on the whole people treat the media – TV and radio – as supplements which are somehow inferior to the real thing, which is writing books. Sometimes even the figures involved themselves do that. I think what happened with us looking at his multiple interventions in TV and radio is that sometimes the relationship between writing and television appearance reverses the conventional narrative.

The most famous project that he took part in is a project called Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (Palgrave Macmillan, 1978), which is a book about the study of mugging and how mugging became a social phenomenon, a subject of moral panics, and so on. When you go to the archive you realize that there are, for instance, television appearances where, for want of a better word, a rehearsal of the themes that became the book happens. Sometimes there is the idea that television is merely a space where what has been thought in the academy and in the ivory towers of the study is then translated to, and it’s not true. Sometimes the rush, sometimes the transitory nature, sometimes the call of the political moment forces certain figures like Stuart Hall to then have to do something that they then afterwards think, that was a good idea, maybe I’ll put that down into a book!

AD: I think on that note, and on the evocation of Stuart Hall, whom, as I said, made possible a lot of what I do today and made possible a lot of what you do today, that would be a good place to end. Thank you very much John.

[1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press, 1965.


Akomfrah, John. “John Akomfrah in Conversation with Anthony Downey.” Interview by Anthony Downey. Ibraaz. Ibraaz, 30 Apr. 2014.