Art

The Violence of the British Slave Trade, as Told Through the Sea

John Akomfrah’s Tropikos, showing at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, navigates the United Kingdom’s role in the slave trade and the inherently formidable power of the sea.

John Akomfrah, Tropikos (2016), single channel HD color video, 5.1 sound, running time: 36 min., 41 sec., editions 2/5 + 2 APs. (© Smoking Dogs Films, image courtesy Lisson Gallery)

MIAMI — In Gaston Bachelard’s Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, the philosopher writes, “A being dedicated to water is a being in flux…Water always flows, always falls, always ends in horizontal death…For the materializing imagination, death associated with water is more dream-like than death associated with earth: the pain of water is infinite.”

Water and Dreams was a literary inspiration for John Akomfrah’s 2016 film, Tropikos, an experimental costume drama in which the sea — dark and green, penetrating and impenetrable — returns, over and over, like a refrain. Sometimes waves cross and interlock like hands, frothily passing over patches of concrete. In other scenes, the sea is an uncomfortable vista that white Elizabethan figures gaze upon, imagining worlds beneath and beyond. When a young black man wades into the water to examine a seashell, the waves encase him, a briefly protective sheath. Booted feet and gloved hands approach him from behind, and though what comes immediately before and after is obscured, the unspoken danger is obvious.

Water is, for many, a kind of conduit, either to places where they seek refuge or find themselves captive. Death is the constant risk, undertaken by choice or by force. In a conversation with Maurice Stierl about his 2015 film, Vertigo Sea, Akomfrah referred to the shared experiences of sea-faring migrants: “All of them, at some point, would have to face this question of an encounter with the sea that could prove fatal. And the fatality, I suppose, is defined partly by whether you have any choice in this journey or not.”

John Akomfrah, Tropikos (2016), single channel HD color video, 5.1 sound, running time: 36 min., 41 sec., editions 2/5 + 2 APs (© Smoking Dogs Films, image courtesy Lisson Gallery, photo by Jack Hems)

Tropikos, now on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami and curated by Diana Nawi, was initially screened at Lisson Gallery as part of a trilogy of films showcasing troubling histories: the brutal consequences of empires, migrations of the religiously persecuted, and, in Tropikos, the United Kingdom’s role in the development of the slave trade and the inherently formidable power of the sea. These violent histories are presented as dreamy, amnesiac memories, lurid visuals that imagine the encounter between Europeans and Africans in the 16th century without revealing the details in full (like a dream, we are left to interpret the half-told stories). Bachelard would argue memory is poetically linked to water; in another interview, Akomfrah stated, “Amnesia is a constant sea. We swim in it all the time.”

In Tropikos, water becomes a contentious liminal space, placid but inherently dangerous. An experimental series of one lavish mise-en-scène after another, the film is mostly stripped of dialogue: we begin in Plymouth Sound, England, 1554, with slow, meandering shots of silent Elizabethan explorers, their ilk — specifically a red-lipped woman and a preternaturally blonde man — and a few African men, usually in robes but sometimes in the same finery as the white royalty. Other chapters are set on the coasts of Sierra Leone and Guinea.

John Akomfrah, Tropikos (2016), single channel HD color video, 5.1 sound, running time: 36 min., 41 sec., editions 2/5 + 2 APs (© Smoking Dogs Films, image courtesy Lisson Gallery)

We are led, segment by segment, to 1567 and to more characters, who stare at each other, at dead chickens hanging from trees, at bulbous and strangely illuminated tropical fruits, and at the sea — always the sea — with an indefinable tension. The movements of the British grow increasingly languid; when they and the robed black men survey the water, it’s clear that the sea is what introduced the former to the latter — and what brought the latter, unwillingly, to the home of the former. Tropikos is a deck of tarot cards distilled into cinema: profoundly still scenes draped with stark items, each allusively imbued with deep symbolism and hinting at a clandestine narrative.

Throughout, a faceless narrator with a raspy voice paraphrases — and eventually recites in full — monologues from Shakespeare’s Henry V and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. “But pardon…the flat unraised spirits that hath dared / On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object,” says the voice, and two black men, in white and pink, walk forth along a concrete platform, great beings suddenly objectified. Milton’s quote, repeated every few moments, is foreboding, as he warns Adam and Eve of their eventual fall from grace:

O Hell! what do mine eyes with grief behold?
Into our room of bliss thus high advanced
Creatures of other mold—Earth-born perhaps,
Not Spirits, yet to Heavenly Spirits bright
Little inferior—whom my thoughts pursue
With wonder, and could love; so lively shines
In them divine resemblance, and such grace
The hand that formed them on their shape hath poured.
Ah! gentle pair, ye little think how nigh
Your change approaches, when all these delights
Will vanish, and deliver ye to woe—
More woe, the more your taste is now of joy.

 

John Akomfrah, Tropikos (2016), single channel HD color video, 5.1 sound, running time: 36 min., 41 sec., editions 2/5 + 2 APs (© Smoking Dogs Films, image courtesy Lisson Gallery)

Near the film’s end, a black woman appears amid fields of wheat, and it is her presence — stoic, elegant, and quietly forlorn — that provides context for Milton’s words: she and the men from the Guinea coast are, in the eyes of white explorers, the “creatures of other mold,” graceful and divine. Even among these bright, lush tableaux vivants, one gets the sense life in Plymouth is colorless and oppressive, and the spoils of the explorers’ pillages — African statuettes, pearls, lush fruits, and people — are the stuff of their dreams. The colonizers and their dreams are as sinister as they are romantic, satisfying both a greed and a perverse need in their hearts. The African men and women who traverse the coast have endured the waterways as passages to an unholy hell.

Tropikos is actually shot in Plymouth and Tamar Valley, England, where early English expeditions to the African Guinea coast departed from in search of goods and gold, and became enmeshed in the transport of slaves to the Americas. Captain William Towerson brought enslaved Africans to Plymouth to display as exhibitions, and Tropikos reimagines this fate. Throughout the film, a vessel is shown — perhaps leaving from the Guinea and Sierra Leone coasts — carrying objects and food, as well as African men, who either stare plaintively at the water or, when donning the Elizabethan clothes of the period, boldly at the unknown future.

John Akomfrah, Tropikos (2016), single channel HD color video, 5.1 sound, running time: 36 min., 41 sec., editions 2/5 + 2 APs (© Smoking Dogs Films, image courtesy Lisson Gallery, photo by Jack Hems)

In another repeated scene, the white explorers and white woman sleep on swaths of blankets, surrounded by paintings, jewels, and bowls of the same objects found on the vessel. They are dreaming of other futures, and in fact Tropikos itself is a kind of dream, a hypnagogic exploration of the sea’s brutal subconscious. But the African characters are not often shown dreaming, their heads never surrounded, like visions, with the plundered spoils of cruel exploration. Instead, there is only the continuous motif of their approach toward the water, their gazes unwavering. It was the sea that led them to a sorrowful fate. It is also their only route home.

Tropikos continues at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (1103 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami, 33132) through August 27.

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