John Akomfrah, “Vertigo Sea” (2015), installation view, three-channel HD color video installation, 7.1 sound, 48 minutes 30 seconds (© Smoking Dogs Films, courtesy Lisson Gallery)

SAN FRANCISCO — 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 Akomfrah remembers spending a lot of time there as a teenager. J.M.W. Turner’s seascapes and the way the artist used light particularly mesmerized him.

Now, “The Deluge,” a monumental Turner painting on loan from the Tate showing a Biblical flood, is paired with Akomfrah’s, “Vertigo Sea,” a three-channel cinematic video installation in the exhibition Sublime Seas at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through September 16.

“Vertigo Sea” premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2015, where it was received to critical acclaim. With documentary film, literary texts, and new footage, it explores the current refugee crisis, the transatlantic slave trade, and the whaling industry. There are beautiful images of crashing waves, sunsets, and dolphins swimming juxtaposed with black and white images of people setting sail long ago and sailors dancing on deck, along with tableaux of actors in old-fashioned clothes, standing by the shore with abandoned items: a clock, chairs, a table. You hear news reports about deaths and near-deaths of West Africa immigrants in the Mediterranean, and see images of slaves tossed into the ocean, refugees struggling to stay afloat, and archival footage of people shooting and killing polar bears and harpooning whales. Some of these images recall Turner, who painted four whaling scenes near the end of his career. An abolitionist, Turner also painted “The Slave Ship” in 1840 and exhibited it to coincide with a meeting of the British Anti-Slavery Society.

Akomfrah, a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective and a refugee himself, talked with Hyperallergic about wanting to do a work about disasters at sea, how immigrants embody the utopian impulse of wanting to improve ourselves, and how the precise mix of beauty and terror can become sublime.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, “The Deluge” (exhibited 1805), oil paint on canvas; Tate, London (photo courtesy Tate, London)

Emily Wilson: How did you start thinking about “Vertigo Sea”? 

John Akomfrah: Almost all of the projects that I’ve been working on over the last 10 years have had sort of a rolling quality in the sense that in the midst of one, you begin to get inclinations of another way of talking about something that doesn’t quite fit the project you’re currently working on. With “Vertigo,” I was working on collecting material for a project on the cultural theorist Stuart Hall. I ended up watching a lot of material from the 1970s on disasters at sea essentially, but principally the Vietnamese boat people. And over the last 10 years I’ve also been thinking more and more about how to migrate some of my concerns from the early work I did with the collective and trying to do something about the sea. It seemed necessary, especially because over the last 10 years, there’s been a sort of rolling tragedy in Europe of migrants trying to get to Europe from Africa and Asia using the Mediterranean and these small flimsy boats — many lives have been lost at sea in the process. So that was a very strong impetus for this project. We started trying to do something about this in 2007. I was going to do the walk across the Sahara to Libya and then board a boat with a crew to try and do the journey. In the end, I was talked out of it [laughs], which is probably just as well because I would probably not be alive now to talk to you.

When I think of my parents’ generation, the people who came over in the 1940s and ’50s, I wouldn’t say the trip was comfortable, but it was safe, and the promise of arrival was one of the dividends for it. This is a new experience of migration where there was no promise of arrival, and in fact, the very opposite, turning the whole kind of utopian thrust of migration into something else.

EW: What do you think having the Turner does for “Vertigo Sea”?

JA: I’m not sure the dialogue is a fair one because the Turner is a painting in the corner with no noise, and mine is a three-channel, very noisy child in the front. The main ambition is to force people to consider how the themes of “Vertigo Sea” are constant in art. One of the things you always get when you do something that feels quote-unquote contemporary, is it might be interesting, but is it really art? I wanted to highlight how not just the sea, but perils at sea have been one of the lingering obsessions of a number of artists going back centuries. You also want people to see a dialogue with the artworks themselves — a conversation about light, about how one treats the human form in vastness, how one treats nature itself, what is proper for an artwork to deal with when it wants to talk about the natural world. I was hoping when people come in, they see that for themselves.

John Akomfrah at his London studio (2016) (© Smoking Dogs Films; courtesy Lisson Gallery, photo by Jack Hems)

EW: You have images of actors wearing old-fashioned clothes and furniture on the beach. Why are those there?

JA: I was keen to try to explore the question of the historical itself. Most of the time things to do with the natural world are devoid of the historical. Nature is timeless and eternal. So one of the things I was very keen to do was to situate my interest with the sea in a historic framework. Whaling was an occupation, it was work, and they had reasons for doing it, which were not just to do with blood, lust, or vengefulness to the whale. People needed it to feed families, to have homes, so I wanted those to be there: the livelihood, the homes, the families.

EW: You use quotes from texts, such as Moby Dick, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Friedrich Nietzsche. How did you select them?

JA: Nietzsche always crops up in my work every time I’m reevaluating anything. In many ways, so does Virginia Woolf. I’m a huge fan. I like Woolf’s technique — it’s unique, and both To the Lighthouse and The Waves are the most remarkable studies of light, the descriptions of the coming and the passing of days. So you get the sense that things like weather systems, light, have a huge impact on sensibility and psychology and how people are behaving and thinking. She is almost certainly one of my constants.

John Akomfrah, “Vertigo Sea” (2015), installation view, three-channel HD color video installation, 7.1 sound, 48 minutes 30 seconds (© Smoking Dogs Films, courtesy Lisson Gallery)

Moby Dick — what more is there to say? If I ever became a president or prime minister anywhere, one of the few decrees I might pass is to stop people from trying to read Moby Dick too early. You have to be a little bit older to get it. So many of us are put off by this book because at 14 someone shoves it in your hand. It’s a kind of philosophical tract about our place in the universe with the story as a kind of McGuffey. You have to wait for a third of the book before the quote-unquote story gets going.

EW: “Vertigo Sea” is both so beautiful and so hard to watch.

JA: I can’t watch it now. Partly because in the process of making things like this, in a way, you’re immunized from its emotional kick by the anxiety and the fear — by the drive to get it right. And you’re trying to just finish it. So you’re not always caught in grip of its emotional journey because you’re sort of in the middle of it. I was never really a viewer of it — I was trying to construct it. I knew when I started there would be disparate stories, each of them saying, I am too important to be put together with that lot. I had to persuade them to cohabit, and I didn’t have a chance to spectate. In the end, I was talking and have been talking ever since, about the nature of sublime and the reasons why I finally understood why that precise mix of beauty and the terrible became the concoction of the sublime. Because of course, it’s not enough for things to just be quote-unquote beautiful. They alert us to the question of mortality and its disappearance and in that mix; one finds the emergence of what one could call the sublime.

John Akomfrah, “Vertigo Sea” (2015), installation view, three-channel HD color video installation, 7.1 sound, 48 minutes 30 seconds (© Smoking Dogs Films, courtesy Lisson Gallery)

EW: You were saying the journey was safer when your parents came over. Do you also think it’s harder for current refugees after they have already arrived? 

JA: I think so. The problem with that is a much more profound one than we are willing to acknowledge. Migrants generally — the traveler — is the embodiment of the key utopian impulse in our species, the desire to improve ourselves, to better our lot. This is the oldest drive we know. We disrespect it at our peril. We have no way of understanding anymore, I don’t think, what a major utopian underpinning comes with this desire. And when we deny it to others, we deny it to ourselves. We’re denying the right to wander and to experience newness as a species, and that is dangerous, it seems to me. So apart from the fact that it’s really hard for the newly arrived to find a life, which is bad enough, I think we’re also cheapening the value of our existence by making things so hard for the experience of newness, and that is a tragedy for all of us.

Sublime Seas: John Akomfrah and J.M.W. Turner continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) (151 3rd St, San Francisco) through September 16. “Vertigo Sea” will also be included in Akomfrah’s upcoming solo exhibition at the New Museum, John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire, which opens June 20.

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...