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John Akomfrah by David Levene

“I don’t think it’s possible to speak about the question of blackness without also, in some way, reaching into the space of the spiritual.”

An artist, writer, film director and screenwriter


John Akomfrah is an artist and filmmaker, whose works are characterised by their investigations into memory, postcolonialism, temporality and aesthetics and often explores the experiences of migrant diasporas globally.

He made his debut as a director with Handsworth Songs, which won the Grierson Award for Best Documentary in 1987. In 1998 he co-founded Smoking Dogs Films, with Lina Gopaul and David Lawson. Other works include the three-screen installation The Unfinished Conversation (2012), a moving portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s life and work; Peripeteia (2012), an imagined drama visualising the lives of individuals included in two 16th century portraits by Albrecht Dürer and Mnemosyne (2010) which exposes the experience of migrants in the UK, questioning the notion of Britain as a promised land by revealing the realities of economic hardship and casual racism.

In 2015, Akomfrah premiered his three-screen film installation Vertigo Sea (2015), which explores what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls ‘the sublime seas’. Fusing archival material, readings from classical sources and newly shot footage, Akomfrah’s piece focuses on the disorder and cruelty of the whaling industry and juxtaposes it with scenes of many generations of migrants making epic crossings of the ocean for a better life.


In 2017, Akomfrah presented his largest film installation to date, Purple (2017), at the Barbican in London. The six-channel video installation addresses climate change, human communities and the wilderness. In the same year, Akomfrah debuted Precarity (2017) at Prospect 4 New Orleans, following the life of forgotten New Orleans jazz singer Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden. On the occasion of his participation at the first Ghana Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, John Akomfrah presented Four Nocturnes (2019), a new three-channel piece that reflects on the complex intertwined relationship between humanity’s destruction of the natural world and our destruction of ourselves.

Akomfrah has received honorary doctorates from Goldsmiths, University of London; the University of the Arts, London; and Portsmouth University, from which he had originally graduated in 1982. Ten years on from the making of The Unfinished Conversation, Akomfrah is remounting the triptych at the Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham.