Interviewed by Devika Girish
During this last year, I’ve encountered (and myself deployed) a common refrain in culture writing: the idea that time has “stilled” during the global pandemic. But what we’ve all experienced in these months is not so much a stoppage of time as an eruption of various temporalities that seem asynchronous with the churn of modern capitalist life. We’ve been confronted with the ubiquity of mortality and crisis, which forces us to consider time as something to not be spent but saved. The upending of routines has exposed the needless pace of production, while the thinning of social life has attuned us to how our experience of time morphs, stretching and shrinking, in communal versus individual existences. And then we’ve had revolutionary time: those elusive moments that burst forth in protests, riots, and demonstrations, refusing to let time “heal all wounds;” insisting that to imagine new ways of living, we must stop moving on and instead change course.
In the midst of this temporal disorientation last summer, I saw John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs and found it a clarifying index: a crystallisation, through sound and image, of the alternate time opened up in moments when a reconfiguration of social reality seems achievable. Made in 1986 as one of the first feature-length projects of the Black Audio Film Collective—a group comprised of seven Black British artists and thinkers, including Akomfrah, Reece Auguiste, Edward George, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Claire Joseph and Trevor Mathison—Handsworth Songs is an essayistic meditation on the civil unrest sparked by police brutality in Birmingham in 1981 and 1985. Inspired by the writings of Stuart Hall, the film layers archival images of Britain’s immigrants and contemporaneous footage of riots and their media coverage, steeping it all in atmospheric, dissonant sound. The riots are captured as both an expression of pure, unbridled energy, boiling over from accumulated injustices, and a measured, analytical response, rigorous in its form and historical in its trajectory.
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.
Girish: Last summer, when the demonstrations were at their peak in New York, I felt very ambivalent about art and film—about whether watching and making art are meaningful ways of engaging with the world. That’s when Lisson Gallery screened Handsworth Songs online, and I had a sudden moment of clarity while watching it. Its images seemed to capture a political urgency that didn’t seem removed from the materiality of what was going on in the streets. It also reminded me that there was something exceptional about this year and the racial pandemic, as you put it, but also something unexceptional. Have you noticed that film having a kind of cyclical resurgence, as history keeps repeating itself?
Akomfrah: There’s a sense in which Handsworth Songs was trying to dialogue with the conditions of black bare life, if I could put it that way, in the ’80s. The reason I think it still feels germane is that those reflections on the conditions of black bare life still hold—if not the conditions, then the position that the film takes vis-a-vis the conditions. You’ve got to remember, Handsworth Songs was completed a year after many of the events that it talks about. In documentary terms, that’s a very long time. We decided early on that we would make it a piece of reflection rather than a comment on the event itself. We didn’t have the resources to make a current affairs documentary, which would mean having to finish the film a month after and ride the crest of the wave of topicality. That allowed us to have a vision of the long durée and to ask ourselves: How relevant can a film be if it’s missed the point, if it hasn’t come out at the time it’s supposed to? What else can you say with it? What can you do with it?
Handsworth Songs (Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah, 1986). Single channel 16mm color film transferred to video, sound, 58 minutes 33 seconds. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.
When you watch the film, you feel that somebody’s trying to think through something, trying to make sense of something that feels complicated. Those questions are still important because anyone who turns up for demonstrations isn’t just there because of George Floyd’s death but because a year before somebody else died in the same way. They have a narrative in their head that is trying to make sense of connecting the past and the present. When they see something that looks like their thought process, they gravitate towards it. In the last couple years, I’ve sat there all across the world—France, Brazil—watching people watching the film, and I think, OK, it can’t mean that much to them because most of them don’t even know what Birmingham is. But it’s not the specific events the film speaks about but the formal logic—of trying to figure out why the present is in and of itself not enough—that seems to chime with people. They get the sense that there’s a temporal rummage, trying to connect disparate elements in the present.
Girish: That’s beautifully put. Process is always present, and the film embodies process so well. I’d say that protest is also always a process. It’s a constantly moving thing. The logic of the film, as you describe it, gives evocative shape to those impulses.
Akomfrah: You made me think of something else. We still live in an age in which the language of protest is largely demonized and pathologized as not having a raison d'être. Mainstream media still treats the language of protest, usually after these moments when something cataclysmic has happened, as essentially gibberish.
Girish: Unintelligible, basically.
Akomfrah: Unintelligible, pathological. What feels still relevant to people is the idea of deconstructing those events and giving them sense. Making them meaningful, making them narrative, giving them a reason for being.
Girish: I’d like to return to what I was saying earlier about feeling ambivalent toward the political place of art and cinema. Your parents were part of political struggles in Ghana, and on-the-ground activism has always been a part of your life. Have you grappled with the question of how art fits into that lineage, and whether it’s the right outlet for revolutionary energies?
Akomfrah: One of my interminable questions has to do precisely with the function and relevance of my practice, because, as you quite rightly said, I have sitting behind me very substantial parental figures for whom there was no dispute about the value of political action. If you want to offer a counter-narrative to your past, and say to your dead mother and father, “I’m glad you went this way, but I have to go that way”—in the direction of non-activism—you have to think about why.
I don’t know that there is an answer, but what I can tell you is that there are a number of things that animate what I do and they are connected to the political in complex ways. I believe profoundly that nothing comes through in activism without form. What looks and feels like spontaneous, incoherent outbursts, like riots, have a stylistic signature. To wrestle with the formal is not, as they say in England, a wank. It’s about devising ways through which what feels incoherent can begin to appear as if it has shape and patterns.
I don’t want to reduce what I do and what people I respect all around the world do when they commit to making images to either an irrelevance or parity with political activism. But what is indisputable is that the business of trying to understand the means by which things acquire a form is important because there is no world outside of the formal. There really isn’t anything outside of signatures and gestures, so investigating them, and even inventing some, is important. Otherwise, cinema doesn’t matter, you know what I mean? I smoked for 30 years, and that was partly because I understood how to from the cinema. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the cinema made me smoke, but it gave me the gestures through which smoking made sense.
Girish: Stuart Hall would agree.
Akomfrah: Yes, Stuart would absolutely agree. I have one or two people who, when I am faced with something important, I think, “Oh, I wonder what they would think.” And Stuart has been one of those for me, dead or alive. My great friend, Anand Patwardhan in Bombay, is also like that.
Girish: One way in which the vocation of cinema becomes clear to me is through the concept of hauntology, which you’ve talked about as influential in your thinking. There is a quote in the scholar Ariella Azoulay’s new book, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, where she says: “Our approach to the archive cannot be guided by the imperial desire to unearth unknown ‘hidden’ moments. It should rather be driven by the conviction that other political species were and continue to be real options in our present. We should not seek to discover but to join with others. ” This idea resonates with what I perceive as the work of your work. Cinema has the unique ability to animate the past, and you make powerful use of that to create temporal adjacencies, often removing pastness from the archive.
Akomfrah: Most of the people who work in cinema who I revere and respect and constantly refer to are those who awaken in me, when I watch their stuff, a sense of a doubling. I see in their work both the presence of the present and an elsewhere—the place from which the image comes. Just about everybody whose work I love highlights the Janus-faced nature of the image. Of course, because I am a diasporic figure, this interests me enormously. I am interested in the means by which those of us without a permanent foothold in the metropole can commandeer the non-monumental, if you will, to help in this task of inscribing us into a place.
But Azoulay is right as well. It’s not simply about inscribing oneself into the present; it’s also about making alibis with the historical and challenging it where necessary, because the narratives that underpin the present don’t all emanate in the present. The narratives that are making things work the way they are usually have migrated from elsewhere. When Trump or the British Prime Minister says to young activists, “Do not take down this statue,” they’re obviously talking about the present, but in their minds, there’s a fiction that somehow these statues are an embodiment of time, of the past. That’s why they object to it. If it was merely a stone in the present, they wouldn’t care.
Oftentimes, whether it’s a statue or a film, things are much more amenable to dialogue than their custodians believe, whether it’s governments or librarians or archivists. Things are much more open to debate, they have a more democratic spirit, than people think. The statue of a slave trader could just as easily agree to sit in a dark room as it would in a public space. It’s quite happy to be in both places, it seems to me. The reasons we keep them where they are now are entirely to do with us, not them. When you work with the archive, these are the conversations and thoughts often sparked. You’re endlessly in flight, in search of forms that might allow or license a dialogue. It’s a kind of counter-custodial position.
Girish: Another reason your work has spoken a lot to me personally is the use of montage to create solidarities between different communities—not just spaces and times, but also people. I grew up in India and now live in the US, which, of course, has a different history of cross-racial affinities than Britain. But for me, the visual vocabulary of films like Handsworth Songs, The Stuart Hall Project, Nine Muses, and others, which brings together communities without dissolving differences, is very striking.
Akomfrah: This was a precondition for our emergence as a generation, and so we don’t take it lightly. My parents are from West Africa, and in the Black Audio Film Collective, there were people whose parents were from different parts of the world—South Asia, the Caribbean. Deciding what our vocabulary was meant having to not simply subsume our identities into a new one but literally make a new one: Black Britishness. In Black Britishness, if I went home and my mother said something to me in Ga, I still understood it, but I didn’t think of myself as only a Ga boy anymore. It was through a language of solidarity that this hybrid, hyphenated identity emerged—one which had enough resonance and resources in it to allow people to feel comfortable in that living room, with people of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities.
Having decided that you were Black British folk, it seemed important that the work you did should either ethically or aesthetically try to answer this question of what makes Black Britain. I think that’s why the works had an open-endedness and formal inquisitiveness; an ability to take from a variety of sources. We were never ashamed to say: listen, we are as interested in Soviet cinema as we are in Latin American cinema, as we were in the early Nouvelle Vague or the Black American cinema that emerged in the ’80s. Because we were trying to find armory for ourselves—ammunition, if you will. And the language of the guerilla which underpinned that was very real. I don’t think anybody my age who was vaguely interested in politics thought of the British state as an innocent entity. You were aware of it as a despotic presence in your life, whether in misnaming you or miseducating you, or harassing you on the streets. So the business of evading capture, of maroonage, of tactical mobility—aesthetic, ethical, and political—were all important assets. Wherever one sensed that you could learn something, whether it was in the work of Parajanov in the Soviet Socialist republics or Anand Patwardhan in India, you took it. That’s why the work has the air of bricolage, because it quite literally is a fresco of influences and adaptations. I’m not in the least bit ashamed to admit that because that’s how all new things come into being. It’s a process of absorption but not one that dissolves anything.
I also realized that all the attempts to turn montage into a stylistic device robbed it of its revolutionary inclinations. Of course, montage is a device, but its philosophical assumptions are really quite profound, and it’s more in its ethical imperative that its real importance lies. When you agree to allow the exigencies of montage to overrule things in your life, you are saying that you want a series of discrete fragments to be in conversation with each other, and you’re hoping in a utopian way that this conversation will lead to something else, will improve on the positions of the other discrete elements whose union was necessary for this new thing to come about. I have remained a disciple of montage because I think it's one of cinema’s great philosophical inheritances for us. Nothing bores me more than being with film people who talk about shots and composition. It seems to me that you can have the most beautifully choreographed sequences that are absolutely empty and don’t say a damn thing about anything, including themselves.
Girish: That makes a lot of sense. There’s always this question of the line between montage and incoherence, which, put another way, is the line between hybridity and ahistoricity. How do you negotiate those poles? What you’re saying, I think, is that if you only view it as a formal mode, then you can’t. You have to view it as an ethical and philosophical mode.
Akomfrah: Yeah, the same with hybridity. The minute it’s viewed as a refuge of the dilettante or the cosmopolitan, or seen as dabblings in the marketplace of identity where people are choosing and discarding things willy-nilly—when it’s seen in those late-capitalist terms, hybridity feels empty. But actually, if you try to ask the question the other way, which is, why are there so many spaces of such complexity that don’t make sense if you look at them purely at their point of origin? If you try to reduce every young South Asian kid in this country to where their parents came from, you’re not going to get very far. How does one explain the processes by which emergent identities acquire what they have without acknowledging the presence of hybridity? I don’t think we should get too hung up on the words. “Essentialism,” “hybridity”—these are all now buzzwords that at one time were trying to grapple with complicated things. Those things, I think, are still important. If someone has a better way of framing them, I’m happy to go along with them.
Girish: Maybe images are the way.
Akomfrah: Yes, that’s what I meant earlier about the need to give images their due, because these are complexities that images are able to seize on and work with really simply. People look at Handsworth Songs now, and they say, “Oh, it’s incredible how you got these young Asian guys sitting there and talking.” Well, they’re not just young Asians, they’re friends! We knew each other; that’s why they’re there. So what you get with Handsworth Songs is an attempt to give shape and texture to hybridity. Having lived together and faced the crisis, what can we say about it? That’s hybridity in motion, in practice. There’s always somebody who thinks, “Oh, well, if I don’t like a word that gets rid of the processes that the words are trying to define.” If you’re some right-wing jock, you go “I don’t like hybridity because it’s woke.” It’s sad that the Right always thinks like that. It thinks we’re obsessed with words. We’re not just obsessed with words, we’re obsessed with what the words are trying to describe.
Girish: You’ve talked about how your work is often in response to a kind of cultural amnesia and inattention to history. How do you think about amnesia in the image-saturated present we live in? The world is a bit different now from when you started making bricolage and digging into archives.
Akomfrah: There’s a way in which the propulsive logic of late capital is about churning over things at an incredible rate so that sometimes there’s no room to forget before the thing is back in view again. But none of this gets rid of what is really a logic of power. There is still a sizable majority of people in this country who voted for something called Brexit. One of the reasons they voted that way is because they didn’t like foreigners like me. In their minds, I’m still a foreigner. Despite the fact that there’s a profusion of images, it is perfectly possible for the amnesia that we spoke about to sit very comfortably with this other thing. People are very happy to see lots of black sportsmen, and they’re very happy to see soap operas with mixed casts. Does that challenge their sense of what this place is? Not necessarily. Does that stall or hide the fact that there are people who don’t really get that there were Africans here before there were Anglo-Saxons, because the Roman army that came to defeat this place was a North African army, the Legionnaires came from North Africa? That amnesia is a major one, and I’m not sure that the profusion of images of black sportsmen or celebrities shifts that substantially. It’s almost as if there are two different historical tracks, and one needs to attend to them almost specifically.
The statue that I spoke about in the beginning is a very good example of what I mean. In Bristol, the city where the statue [of Edward Colston] sits, there now live two to five generations of African and Caribbean peoples from islands that this man, whose statue sits there, shipped and trafficked people to. When our prime minister chastises these young people, telling them to leave, what he doesn’t understand, or understands but doesn’t acknowledge, is the fact that the descendants of the people taken by that man are the ones throwing him into the river. Before this becomes a legal question, there’s an ethical one, which is Why are you allowing the effigy of a trafficker to sit inside a community where the descendants of the traffic are now living their lives? It’s like having an effigy of Adolf Hitler in Jerusalem. You do that because you don’t think the past matters, or you don’t think the act of remembering it or reliving it matters. And that’s usually always said to powerless people. Can you just get over it and move on? It’s funny, the powerful never get over anything. It’s that amnesia that still is a characteristic feature of late-capitalist society.
Girish: The title of your forthcoming exhibition, The Unintended Beauty of Disaster, seems to get at what you’re saying about destruction, monuments, and, if I may flip it, the disaster of beauty.
Akomfrah: The idea that you can’t have the two things is one of the challenges that’s been part of my work, especially in the gallery space, over the last decade or so. Because it's the way I understand what the sublime means. It’s always a conjunction of the terrible and disquieting on one hand, and the awe-inspiring on the other. There is an unexpected traffic from disaster to beauty, which is what we have to do. Otherwise, there is no morality behind what we do. Somebody’s always saying, “Why do you have such violent images?” I have such violent images because violent things happen! I want to find ways of showing how the violence orchestrates another logic into our consciousness. I can’t give over my life to silence in the name of an avoidance of pain. We have to confront pain, or try to find things to say about it.
Girish: What can we expect to see in this new exhibition?
Akomfrah: It’s time to deal with the position that I find myself in, that most of us find ourselves in, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, countless arrests and demonstrations, and the pandemics. What can we say about all of this that feels as if it’s the language of art rather than satire or political journalism? What is there that one can say? That’s what I’m wrestling with. Both shows [in London and in New York] will be iterations of that ambition: to find something to say about the present that doesn’t avoid the ugly but wants to be art. You’ll have to wait for the rest!
Cover image: John Akomfrah, The Last Angel of History, 1995. Single channel colour video, sound, 45 minutes, 7 seconds. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery