For decades, Ghanaian-British filmmaker and artist John Akomfrah has been one of the leading anticolonial voices in cinema. A founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective, he’s explored Black life in Britain and beyond through works that feel loose and conversational in their editing but acute in their observations. In recent years, his installation works, such as Vertigo Sea, have tackled grand-scale ideas around humanity’s relationship to the environment.
In 2017 Akomfrah premiered Purple, his largest installation yet, at the Barbican. Playing out over six gargantuan screens, it combines both archival materials and original documentary footage as part of a broad survey of the effects that climate change is having on the environment. After showing in various institutions around the world, in 2021 the piece was jointly acquired by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. The film began its exhibition at the Hirshhorn in November of 2022, and it will remain on view through 2023. Tied to that exhibition, I sat down with Akomfrah over Zoom to discuss Purple, how his material speaks to him, and what hope he has for the future.
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Hyperallergic: Did you start out wanting to do something about climate change, or did the broader concerns you were exploring lead you there?
John Akomfrah: That’s one of those chicken/egg questions, which are always important for me, because it’s only at the end that I’m able to unpack and figure out where the genesis of things lie. I wouldn’t say that I started off trying to make something about climate change; I rarely try to make things that are about things. But at some point, a logic appears.
When I spoke to the Barbican about a commission for [Barbican gallery] the Curve, I said I wanted to do something about my childhood, a vaguely autobiographical project. I knew it was going to be connected to carbon monoxide poisoning, because that was my experience of London life in the ’60s and ’70s. And as I started pulling one tentacle, another would appear. It’s almost a dirge-like musical composition — a cantata, if you will. And it seemed a great idea to have multiple elements which one could then weave into a sort of symphonic whole. I was inexorably led to the theme of climate change by these different strands. But no, I didn’t set out to make something on climate change itself.
H: Is that the kind of creative path your projects generally take? Does starting on one thing lead you to something else, maybe even something completely different?
JA: I find that it’s always a case of starting somewhere with a set of questions, and in the process of trying to answer those questions either larger questions appear or a shape of an answer appears. I follow it all in a very improv jazz-performer-like way until it becomes clear there is something in place which is going to be quote-unquote “about” that subject.
And that point usually doesn’t come until about three-quarters of the way through, by the way. I’m sitting in Venice now, working on a project, and I know roughly — very, very roughly — where we’re going with this. I’ve got a sense of the players, but no clear outline yet. At some point I will write something down, a kind of visual bible of references and movies, just for myself and my team. And even then, there will not be absolute fidelity to that script; we will use it as a point of departure. I like the arrival of the unexpected. The eruption of the unforeseen is the most productive moment in the construction of a project.
H: Purple continues a focus on nature in your recent works. You cited Moby-Dick and J.M.W. Turner as influences on Vertigo Sea. What influenced this one?
JA: I’ve read and looked at all the usual suspects, contemporary ones like Wendell Berry and the like. But I’ve been drawn again to the past, and I don’t know why that is. There’s Thoreau’s writings; I think Purple started germinating during a visit to Walden Pond. There’s something about the 19th century and its take on nature that I still find endearing and compelling. At some point when you’re doing work on this theme, you feel as if it may be all in vain because no one is necessarily listening. I’m always reminded of Rachel Carson, because she definitely was not listened to at all. So she’s a good example to look to for inspiration when we get depressed about whether the work is reaching anyone. A few Black feminists who have been doing work on the Anthropocene were also useful.
I find it almost impossible to speak about film influences because there are just so many. I went to see Mike Nelson’s Coral Reef, and it hasn’t really got anything to do with the environment, but something about the gargantuan arrangement of things in his installation made me think, “Ah, this is one way we could approach this subject matter.” I don’t have any direct influences, but there are a number of things always bubbling away, kind of egging you on, if you like.
H: Some of the piece’s form stems from it originally being shown in the Curve at the Barbican, but what led you to elements like using six channels, or allocating which imagery goes where?
JA: I knew we were going to have two sets of material, one archival and one original. And from the beginning I thought what we needed were two triptychs from these two sets, each obeying the usual democratic logic that I think lies behind triptych work. You’ve got left and right talking, trying to create something which ends up in the middle, which then feeds into the left and right again, and so on. You get propulsion through dialogue between the screens. The idea was for these two sets, the fiction and nonfiction, to converse. They’d have their own universes, and then they’d reach out and commingle.
There’s no prepared recipe for how to properly do this. Sometimes a musical note says that something should migrate from the field in which it feels comfortable to the next field. Sometimes basic things like the shapes of certain shots hint that they might have affinities, even though they originate from different sources. It’s the painterly business of making installations. You’re trying things, you’re throwing out gestures and seeing how things shape. There’s a kind of ontology to them; I think these elements have personalities and character. At some point they suggest by themselves what roles they can play in the ensemble.
H: How do they suggest themselves?
JA: It’s not so evident in what is there; it’s much more evident by what is not there. If you see what I left out, you’d have a clear idea of how these elements say things. What I left out are the bits that said, “No, we can’t talk to these guys. You’re just going to have to work with them on your own.” There’s a certain kind of voluntary altruistic generosity I require images and sequences to embody, this spirit of conviviality. Without that openness — not just with images, but also texts or phrases or colors — they just don’t work together. So where they don’t, I take them out and then, in what’s left, are the figures prepared to participate in this conversation?
There’s always a kind of provisional feature to how images from the past talk to me. I always find it interesting when I look at something that says, “I could work today, but if I don’t, don’t worry.” The thing is to listen closely to the possibilities that images are offering you at any given time. Are they saying they’re ready to be used now, or later? If they say, “I’m a foot soldier in the present army,” I say, “Okay, come aboard, let’s go.” If they say, “No, I’ve got miles to go and promises to keep and all of that. Let’s see each other later,” I say, “Fine.” I try to be both a good listener and watcher.
H: What were your archival sources? Were there any you knew you wanted from early on, or ones you found useful as you searched?
JA: That goes to the heart of how I’ve been working over the last 30 years. There’s the stuff I go searching for specifically because I know I need it, like images of carbon monoxide poisoning or a factory. Then there’s things I wouldn’t necessarily have in my head beforehand. There are things in Purple that I first saw decades ago. There’s a young singing boy that’s from an Irish film made in ’64. I looked it up for something I was doing at the BBC about 30 years ago. It didn’t seem right for that project, so I put it aside and forgot about it until Purple. There are things that suggest themselves in the moment of my encounters with other things. The young man who you see in black and white a lot in Purple is from another project. I was talking about the life of D.H. Lawrence, a very influential writer for me. He says something about the relationship between mother and son, which I thought might belong in this, so I dug it up. You get to a moment when you think, “Actually, I’m an archive as well.”
H: While making this, and in the time since it debuted, has your outlook shifted on climate change?
JA: I’m more optimistic now, actually. I have no logical reason for it, but I think something about the nature of making art induces a sort of optimism. I needed things to make sense to me, and somehow things making sense seems to offer a redemptive possibility. So I felt better once I made it. Like, if it makes sense to me, then everybody else can get it too. That was my challenge to myself: How much of the enormity of this can you shelter in your life, in your head, in your heart? And the minute it felt possible to make something about it, I felt better. I felt like there were options for all of us.