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b. 1957, Ghana

John Akomfrah Biography

John Akomfrah CBE is a Ghana-born pioneering filmmaker and artist based in London. He is internationally known for his collaboratively produced films and multi-screen video installations exploring memory, temporality, colonialism and post-colonialism, and experiences of global diaspora.

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Akomfrah emerged on the filmmaking scene in London as a co-founder of Black Audio Film Collective in 1982. His compatriots in this endeavour were the artists Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, with whom he also founded Smoking Dog Films (established in 1998).

Black Audio Film Collective's first film essay, Handsworth Songs (1986), examined the Birmingham and London riots in 1985 in a multi-layered style combining archival images, newsreels, and interviews. The internationally prize-winning film, which challenged mainstream representation, was screened on the United Kingdom's Channel Four Television channel. It established Akomfrah's distinct, multi-angular approach to challenging topics.

Akomfrah developed this approach in multiple experimental films responding to mounting social unrest in Britain through the 1980s. Such John Akomfrah films draw upon the influence of filmmakers like Chris Marker, Theodoros Angelopoulos, and Jean-Luc Godard, as well as thinkers such as British-Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall. The Unfinished Conversation (2012) focused especially on the life and cultural theories of the latter.

Atmospheric and highly reflective in their execution, John Akomfrah's movies examine personal and collective memories, and establish dialogues between disparate images and narratives throughout history. In conversation with Ocula Magazine in 2018, Akomfrah explained, 'I try to persuade things to move into other spaces in which they can acquire a new garment of identity.'

In John Akomfrah's Vertigo Sea (2015), the artist brought together archival material, classical literature, and new footage. The three-screen installation also contrasted cruel and disturbing scenes from the whaling industry with different generations of migrants embarking on epic ocean crossings to find a better future. The Airport (2016) also brought together different eras and generations together in dialogue through its characters.

Environmental concerns have been a recurring motif in much of Akomfrah's work. This can be seen in the six-channel video installation Purple (2017)—one of Akomfrah's largest works of that decade—and Four Nocturnes (2019), which both examine broader themes relating to humanity's destruction of the natural world.

A filmmaker with a significant following, John Akomfrah's films have featured in several major international film festivals and awards. In 2017 he was awarded the Artes Mundi 7 Prize. Akomfrah's art can also be found in major institutional collections, such as those of Tate, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

John Akomfrah Solo Exhibitions include:

The Unintended Beauty of Disaster, Lisson Gallery, London (2020); John Akomfrah, Secession, Vienna (2020); John Akomfrah: Future History, Seattle Art Museum (2020); John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire, New Museum, New York (2018); Lateral Time: John Akomfrah and Smoking Dogs Films, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (2017); Vertigo Sea, Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden (2015); BP Spotlight: John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, Tate Britain, London (2013).

John Akomfrah Group Exhibitions include:

Our World is Burning, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2020); Get Up, Stand Up Now: Generations of Black Creative Pioneers, Somerset House, London (2019); Take Liberty!, National Museum, Oslo (2014); Africa Now—Political Patterns, Seoul Museum of Art (2014); After Year Zero, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2013); Racing the cultural interface: African diasporic identities in the digital age, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2005).

Michael Irwin | Ocula | 2021

John Akomfrah Featured Artworks

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Triptych by John Akomfrah contemporary artwork
John AkomfrahTriptych, 2020(Still) 3 screens, 10 minutes
Lisson Gallery Contact Gallery
Four Nocturnes by John Akomfrah contemporary artwork
John AkomfrahFour Nocturnes, 2019Three channel HD colour video installation, 7.1 sound 50 minutes
Lisson Gallery Contact Gallery
Handsworth Songs by John Akomfrah contemporary artwork
John AkomfrahHandsworth Songs, 1986Single channel 16mm colour film transferred to video, sound
Lisson Gallery Contact Gallery
Untitled by John Akomfrah contemporary artwork
John AkomfrahUntitled, 2016C-type print mounted on Dibond
104.4 x 155.2 cm
Lisson Gallery Contact Gallery
Untitled by John Akomfrah contemporary artwork
John AkomfrahUntitled, 2016C-type print mounted on Dibond
104.4 x 155.2 cm
Lisson Gallery Contact Gallery

John Akomfrah Current Exhibitions

Contemporary art exhibition, John Akomfrah, The Unintended Beauty of Disaster at Lisson Gallery, Lisson Street, London
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13 April–5 June 2021 John Akomfrah The Unintended Beauty of Disaster Lisson GalleryLisson Street, London

John Akomfrah Represented By

Lisson Gallery contemporary art gallery in Lisson Street, London, United Kingdom Lisson Gallery London, East Hampton, New York, Shanghai

John Akomfrah In Ocula Magazine

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March Meeting Unfolds Okwui Enwezor’s ‘Postcolonial Constellations’ Ocula Feature March Meeting Unfolds Okwui Enwezor’s ‘Postcolonial Constellations’ By Stephanie Bailey, Sharjah

At the 2021 March Meeting, a series of roundtables traced the Sharjah Biennial's 30-year history, unfolding the past into the present.

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Yerevan Biennial Launches Online as Shells Fall Ocula News Yerevan Biennial Launches Online as Shells Fall Yerevan, 19 October 2020

Opening events for the digital exhibition were postponed due to ongoing conflict between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces.

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Non-Aligned Histories Converse at NTU CCA Singapore Ocula Feature Non-Aligned Histories Converse at NTU CCA Singapore By Stephanie Bailey, Singapore

Three video works by John Akomfrah, Naeem Mohaiemen, and The Otolith Group explore histories of decolonisation.

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Lahore Biennale 02: Past Reminders, Possible Futures Ocula Feature Lahore Biennale 02: Past Reminders, Possible Futures By Qalandar Memon, Lahore

The Lahore Biennale took place in sites built and used by the Mughals, the British, and the postcolonial Pakistan state.

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John Akomfrah In Related Press

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The Art Newspaper's pick of the 2019 Venice Biennale Related Press The Art Newspaper's pick of the 2019 Venice Biennale 30 April 2019, The Art Newspaper

There are hundreds of exhibitions in Venice during the Biennale. Alongside the main exhibition in the Giardini and Arsenale, there are 90 national presentations, many in nearby pavilions in the Giardini and in spaces around the Arsenale, but also dotted throughout Venice. Then there are the official collateral exhibitions in museums and galleries...

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John Akomfrah Commemorates the Colonial Soldiers Who Fought for a Cause that Was Not Theirs Related Press John Akomfrah Commemorates the Colonial Soldiers Who Fought for a Cause that Was Not Theirs 22 January 2019, Frieze

In the opening image of John Akomfrah's Mimesis: African Soldier (2018), we are confronted by a row of black and brown faces who smile nervously and knowingly into the camera. They represent the faces we seldom see in war documentaries or history books; their smiles evoke a quiet sense of unease and foreboding. Once the colonial subjects of...

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Strange Days review – fishy kisses, naked prancing and ribald revenge Related Press Strange Days review – fishy kisses, naked prancing and ribald revenge 3 October 2018, The Guardian

Strange Days: Memories of the Future is overwhelming: complex, at times annoying and confusing, repetitive, uplifting and baffling. Like life, really. Films and videos by 21 artists are spread over three floors of the Store X on London's Strand.

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John Akomfrah Discusses Channeling J.M.W. Turner and Disasters at Sea Related Press John Akomfrah Discusses Channeling J.M.W. Turner and Disasters at Sea 11 June 2018, Hyperallergic

When he was four years old, artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah came to London from Ghana with his parents. Because of their anti-colonial activism — they worked with Kwame Nkrumah, who became the country’s first prime minister and president after Ghana’s liberation from Britain —their lives were in danger. The family lived near the Tate, and...

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