John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, Arnolfini, Bristol

John Akomfrah’s (b.1957) multi-screen installation Vertigo Sea draws inspiration from two striking and harrowing literary works: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’ epic poem Whale Nation (1988). Recently on view as part of Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures exhibition at the 56th Venice Biennale, the artwork unites newly shot footage from remote locations on the Isle of Skye, the Faroe Islands and the Northern regions of Norway with archival material and readings from classical sources.

The artist and filmmaker, whose works are characterised by their investigations into personal and collective histories, worked with the BBC’s Bristol based Natural History Unit to create a meditative piece that comments upon man’s turbulent relationship with the sea and its role in the history of slavery, migration and conflict. Vertigo Sea juxtaposes horrific scenes of the whaling industry with shots of African migrants crossing the ocean in a journey fraught with danger in hopes of a ‘better life’. Through disparate yet interlinking imagery, Akomfrah weaves together cruel visions of the past with current issues around global migration, the refugee crisis, slavery, and ecological concerns.

Born in Ghana, Akomfrah uses the medium of film to engage with ideas of cultural, ethnic and personal identity, post-colonialism and temporality. His key focus is on voicing the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the USA. A founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective (1982), his gallery-based work with the collective was celebrated in a major retrospective at FACT, Liverpool and Arnolfini, Bristol in 2007. Akomfrah’s work has been shown in museums and exhibitions around the world including the Liverpool Biennial; Documenta 11, Kassel; the De Balie, Amsterdam; Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Serpentine Gallery; Tate; Whitechapel Art Gallery; and Southbank Centre, London; and MoMA, New York, and he has recently been shortlisted for the Artes Mundi 7 prize.

A public programme will accompany the exhibition including performances, music, screenings, panel discussions and more. After showing at Arnolfini in Bristol, Vertigo Sea will tour nationally to Turner Contemporary, Margate, and Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, as part of the ACE Strategic Touring Programme. This exhibition coincides with a showcase of new and recent work at Lisson Gallery, London, from 22 January – 5 March 2016.

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 16 January – 10 April 2016, Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol, BS1 4QA.

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1. John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015. Three channel HD video installation, colour, sound, 48 minutes. Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.