Akomfrah: Literary Expanses

Akomfrah: Literary Expanses

Founded in response to the 1981 Brixton riots, arts initiatve Black Audio Film Collective created experimental works engaging with the culture and politics of the black and Asian Diasporas. Comprising archival and found footage, sound collages, interviews and realist depictions of contemporary England, films such as Handsworth Songs introduced narratives of black British history into the mainstream media whilst highlighting issues of social, economic and political unrest.

One of these pioneering practitioners was John Akomfrah (b. 1957), whose moving image pieces are celebrated in the first American survey of his work at The New Museum, New York. John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire brings together a series of works spanning 1983-2018, offering an overview of his expansive and conceptually broad practice.


From 1990 onwards, the artist’s focus expanded beyond the social landscape of Britain to study wider historical narratives, investigating the legacy of colonialism, the experiences of migrants and the influence of classical literature. Recent works such as the six-channel Purple (2017) engage with ecological concerns, blending striking visuals with hypnotic sound to offer a multi-layered commentary.

The exhibition foregrounds the celebrated installation Vertigo Sea (2015), which premiered at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The three-screen video positions the ocean as an environmental, cultural and historical locus, examining how the sea is physically and metaphorically central to literature, the history of slavery and climate change.

In a similar way, a new version of the 2013 piece Transfigured Night looks at the relationship between the US and post-colonial African history, whilst The Unfinished Conversation offers a complex reflection on the life and ideas of cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Looking to Akomfrah’s creative origins, New Museum’s collection also includes Expeditions I – Signs of Empire (1983), the first work produced by Black Audio Film Collective.

From 20 June. Find out more here.

1. Still frame from Purple, 2017. Six screen film installation by John Akomfrah. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery
2. John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015
3. John Akomfrah, Purple, 2017 © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery