The images slide across three screens in relentless succession. White birds flap over the wetlands and a boy in the burning sun. Elephants move through the scrub. One thing after another, and then another, and then something else. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and a fleeting glimpse of Malcolm X. Someone playing sax. A rhino quivering in death. Whenever you dwell on one thing, something else calls for attention. Big game hunters climb down from a dead elephant with no more thought than if they’d slid from a bonnet of a truck, all caught in some souvenir black and white footage from their safari.
We see old, framed black and white stills of slaves in chains, subjugated women and children and further horrors, the picture frames hung from trees or half-submerged in streams and in the tide of a rocky headland. Then there are appalling glimpses of beatings and murders (did I really see that?), and a marvellous clip of a hippo, mouth agape, in the surf at the edge of an ocean. There’s no stopping and there’s no going back. The stars wheel overhead and there’s thunder in the clouds.
One always has a feeling of missing as much as one grasps in John Akomfrah’s often lengthy multiscreen videos, although one should trust one’s subconscious to pick up more than one realises. Even so, you can’t always be sure if what you recall isn’t a false memory. Premiered in the Ghanaian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, Akomfrah’s Four Nocturnes is now at Lisson Gallery, as the centrepiece of his new show, The Unintended Beauty of Disaster. Fifty minutes long, Four Nocturnes returns to his themes of our relationship to the natural world and to ourselves, to the histories of colonialism and slavery, to politics (everything is political) and to migrations, both human and animal.
Not for nothing is the work described as a series of nocturnes. Fierce and blinding though the light often is, we are witness here to a darkening of the world, as relentless and unstoppable as the dust storm that rolls in from horizon to horizon at one point in the work, obliterating everything. Later, we come to an astonishing image of a dune in a room. Seeing this work a second time, after two years away from it, I am familiar with far more than I had realised. This is a mark of the power of Akomfrah’s work, and of course of the wildlife film-makers and others whose archival footage and images he has sampled and woven together in unexpected, often seamless ways.
Akomfrah folds his material together with staged scenes of migrants heaving their ubiquitous plastic laundry bags of possessions under desert suns and along empty highways, pausing in the midst of some great emptiness beside a windblown fence or under marching pylons. I find some of this jarring and a bit mannered, while the footage of elephants mourning their dead, and fondling their bones is both intensely moving and also feels somehow intrusive. These images haunt me.
Akomfrah plays fast and loose with time and place, the real and the constructed, to make larger, more complex narratives. A second three-screen video, Triptych, set in an unnamed location, is a panoply of street portraits. The title is taken from a track by jazz drummer and composer Max Roach, from his 1960 album We Insist! Roach’s wonderful Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace, which provides the soundtrack, with singer Abbey Lincoln keening and wailing wordlessly as Akomfrah’s camera glides and pauses. Practitioners of Candomblé, transgender people and queers of all sorts, street musicians, sassy kids and game old ladies, families, friends and passersby pose and smile for Akomfrah’s camera. Towards the end, we see an overhead shot of a vast portrait commemorating Breonna Taylor (shot dead by US police in her home in March last year), covering two basketball courts in Annapolis, Maryland.
Mostly shot in Bahia, northern Brazil, once a centre of the slave trade, Triptych shows black skin, black faces and bodies in all their variety. Along with two new series of prints, Akomfrah’s latest work takes its cues from Caroline Randall Williams’ 2020 New York Times essay You want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument – her call for the removal of confederate monuments has unassailable gravity and moral power.
Set among photographic details of the monumental sculptures at the base of the Albert Memorial in London’s Kensington Gardens are a number of printed definitions: Brique – with Light Skin and Reddish, Woolly Hair; Albarazado – A Child of a Lobo and an Indian; Barcino – Child of an Albarazado and Mestiza; Cuarterón – a Child of a white and a Morisco; Quintroon – of one-sixteenth African Ancestry. This dubious and racist nomenclature, all these Mulattos and Mustefinos sit alongside photographs of carved elephants and bare-breasted women, hoards of tusks and other spoils of empire. Numerous stoic colonial subjects, from India, Africa, the Middle East and who knows where, are memorialised in the white marble, but only as stereotypical, ethnographical stand-ins.
Akomfrah’s Monuments of Being is in part a response to Randall Williams and also to the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol last year. Ever since his work with the Black Audio Film Collective, Akomfrah has been asking us to look again at where we are and where we come from, what we value, what we ascribe to; and who is this “we” in any case? Filled with questions, wide-ranging, at times astonishing, lyrical, troubling and passionate (and I write this, not always loving everything he does) Akomfrah often gives us too much to grasp. The difficulties multiply, but that’s the world for you.