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John Akomfrah OBE CBE

Born, 1957 in Accra, Ghana

Filmmaker and screenwriter John Akomfrah OBE was born in 1957, in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Raised in London, Akomfrah graduated from Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1982, where he read Sociology. He is perhaps best known for his pioneering work with the Black Audio Film Collective, with whom he directed a number of films/documentaries. His list of directing credits is substantial, running well into double figures.

Akomfrah co-founded the Black Audio Film Collective in the early 1980s. The group operated for a period of approximately a decade and a half, disbanding in the late 1990s. The group’s members (in the 1980s) were Akomfrah himself, Reece Auguiste, Eddie (Edward) George, Lina Goupaul, Avril Johnson, Trevor Mathison and David Lawson. They were a group committed to fashioning new types of filmic dialogues, reflective of social, cultural and political developments in 1980s Britain, particularly as such matters, concerns and constructions impacted on Black British identity. Equally as importantly, the Black Audio Film Collective were committed to probing and critiquing, with particular intellectual rigour, a number of orthodoxies of film and media representations of Black people. Such orthodoxies taken to task by the group included most noticeably a critique and an insistent dismantling of the accepted format and structure of the documentary film. Akomfrah and his colleagues leveled a charge of laziness against much mainstream documentary filmmaking. Furthermore, this laziness led directly to a problematic perpetuating of caricature and stereotype, under the guise of ‘objectivity’ and ‘journalism’.

Another hugely important characteristic of Black Audio Film Collective (and indeed, other similar groups such as Sankofa and Ceddo) were the ways in which they eschewed conventional hierarchies of filmmaking in favour of more collective ways of working. [Along with the Black Audio Film Collective, the other highly important Black film and video workshop collective of the mid 1980s was Sankofa, whose members were Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, Isaac Julien and Nadine Marsh-Edwards.] Together, these two collectives “insisted on shifting the terms of avant-garde film theory and practice to include an ongoing engagement with the politics of race, combining a montage aesthetic with elements of personal reflection.” It is significant that groups such as these in effect comprised a “movement [which] was concerned to effect a shift to more collective modes of cultural production fully embracing Foucault’s critique of the author name in favour of collective ‘authorship’ “ (1)

Akomfrah’s assertion was that, in addressing issues of Black British, dominant media forms simply were not fit for purpose and were inappropriate to this (and by extension) other subject matter. To this end, Handsworth Songs, Akomfrah’s greatest triumph, was created as, and indeed remains, a complex, multi-layered sequence of narratives that defy the linear, chronological and conventional readings much loved of mainstream television. Perhaps most importantly, Handsworth Songs eschews the notion of the singular authentic homogenous Black voice. Indeed, the film is likewise dismissive of the authoritive ‘talking head’ to which conventional documentary filmmaking seems perpetually wedded. In this regard, Akomfrah’s work has taken a deliberately questioning approach to documentary film, thereby challenging it to be more creative, textured, and challenging.

Handsworth Songs has been described by Coco Fusco as “a nonnarrative, impressionistic documentary”. It was (and continues to be) shown widely in film festivals in the UK and internationally. The winner of a number of awards, Handsworth Songs was also shown on Channel 4, shown as part of Documenta XI, in 2002, several years later, was shown at Tate Liverpool as part of Making History, Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now. (2006).

Other films by Akomfrah include Testament (1988), with its echoes of historical and political narratives emanating from the country of his birth, Ghana; Who Needs A Heart? (1991) with its challenging and in some ways playful reenactments of the hedonistic – yet decidedly counter-cultural – lives of some of the characters of the nascent Black Power movement in London; and Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993. Akomfrah brought his distinctive and highly visual approach to documentary filmmaking to work commissioned for television, such as Dr Martin Luther King: Days of Hope (for BBC 2’s Reputations series (1997) and The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong (1999) for the BBC arts programme Omnibus. Other films by Akomfrah include Mothership Connection (made with Edward George) which explores the African diaspora through the subject of science-fiction the exploration of outer space, and the various forms of Black music which emerged during, and indeed reflected, a time in which the world’s popular imagination was occupied by the space age and technological developments across a number of spheres. Regarding Mothership Connection, Akomfrah is quoted as saying “The interest in science-fiction for me has to do with the encounter between Africans and Modernity. Science-fiction narratives are usually about alienation, abduction and transportation and that is a very powerful narrative for understanding the transportation and displacing of African people across the world.” (2)

Akomfrah reflects a certain and decidedly pronounced attention on the part of Black British artists, photographers and filmmakers to diasporic narratives. This process, of constantly looking beyond one’s own immediate environment, to explore (and indeed, find common cause with) the experiences of Black people around the world is something consistently reflected in much of Akomfrah’s output.

He was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2008 New Year Honours, and a number of years later, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2017 Birthday Honours for services to art and film making.

Handsworth Songs was included in the major Migrations: Journeys into British Art exhibition at Tate Britain, in 2012. The catalogue included more than three pages of edited text of an interview with Akomfrah by Lizzie Carey-Thomas and Paul Goodwin, two of the curators of the exhibition. Within the text, Akomfrah discussed the history and development of his practice and that of the Black Audio Film Collective. The text had fascinating insights into the development of Black visual art practice in Britain, from the early 1980s onwards. The Akomfrah text was followed by several pages of an interview with Kodwo Eshun, in which he discusses, amongst other things, the significance of Handsworth Songs and the Black Audio Film Collective. (It was Eshun, as part of the Otolith Group, who was co-curator of the Black Audio Film Collective retrospective, The Ghosts of Songs).

(1) Both quotations are from the entry by Mark Nash, Black Audio Film Collective in Documenta 11_Platform 5: Exhibition Short Guide, 2002, p. 36.

(2) From John Akomfrah - being the director who combines politics and a mystical feeling for film, New Internationalist, April, 1998 by Catlina Ribalta

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