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Published 25/07/2019 email E-MAIL print PRINT

John Akomfrah: Ballasts of Memory

Akomfrah’s skill as a film-maker and visual storyteller shines through in this compelling show



Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
6 July – 27 October 2019

by DAVID TRIGG

“Another history is always possible.” These words, spoken by the late cultural theorist and political activist Stuart Hall, are heard in John Akomfrah’s video installation The Unfinished Conversation (2012). They encapsulate the core concern of Ballasts of Memory, this small, compelling exhibition at the Baltic, which explores the importance of history, memory and the role of the archive in keeping people and events alive in the public consciousness. The question of who controls historical narratives is fundamental to the Ghanaian-born British artist’s practice, which, since the early 1980s, has centred on issues of migration with particular reference to the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the US.



John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012. Ballasts of Memory installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC. Courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.

Akomfrah came to prominence as part of the Black Audio Film Collective, whose breakthrough work, Handsworth Songs (1986), was filmed during the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London. Taking the form of an experimental film essay, it mixed contemporary interviews with newsreel footage, still photographs and a densely collaged soundtrack to explore the depressing reality experienced by immigrants to Britain from the former colonies in the Caribbean and Africa – a generation who arrived full of hope yet found alienation, hostility and dislocation. Echoes of Handsworth Songs are felt throughout this exhibition, the works in which similarly balance the poetic with the political to shed light on overlooked histories while giving voice to the marginalised and underrepresented.



John Akomfrah, Precarity, 2017. Ballasts of Memory installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC Courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.

Making its European debut at Baltic is Precarity (2017), a powerful three-channel installation that tells the moving story of Charles “Buddy” Bolden (1877-1931), an African-American musician who was key to the development of New Orleans jazz. His raucous cornet playing and innovative improvisation earned him the title “King Bolden”, although his reign ended abruptly in 1907 when he was committed to the State Insane Asylum in Jackson, Louisiana, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was never seen in public again. In this way, Bolden can be understood as an emblematic diasporic figure: a black man whose significant influence on western culture remains largely overlooked due to ingrained prejudice. Indeed, despite being acknowledged as the father of jazz music, very little is known about the life of this musical maverick, who left behind no known recordings and only a couple of grainy photographs.



John Akomfrah, Precarity, 2017. Ballasts of Memory installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC Courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.

Projected on to three large screens, Precarity sits somewhere between a historical documentary, film essay, costume drama and music video. The combination of beautifully shot scenes, archival footage, enigmatic voiceover and collaged soundtrack offers a richly layered account of Bolden’s legend, the inception of jazz and the American city that gave birth to them both. Actors representing Bolden, his fellow band members, wife and doctor appear throughout the film in places significant to the protagonist’s story: a rural homestead, an abandoned warehouse and the mental asylum where he lived for more than two decades. His precarious place in history is acknowledged throughout the film’s 46 minutes, which at times feels as much a ghost story as it does a portrait of a historical figure. Several scenes show Bolden, dressed in period costume, overlooking contemporary New Orleans, alluding to the way that the past reverberates into the present.



John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012. Ballasts of Memory installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC. Courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.

If Bolden has been unjustly overlooked by history, the same cannot be said of Hall (1932-2014), who is the subject of The Unfinished Conversation. This engrossing 45-minute film, also presented across three enormous screens, features Hall’s own words sourced from numerous radio and television broadcasts. He is heard discussing his experiences of arriving in Britain from Jamaica as a young man in 1951; becoming a founding figure of the new left; his role in the development of cultural studies as an academic discipline; and his rise to become one of Britain’s foremost public intellectuals. Hall is a significant role model for Akomfrah. Like so many immigrants, Hall came to the UK filled with optimism, but was dismayed by the realities of racism and prejudice. Nevertheless, he proved that minorities were capable of gaining agency in a culture where the odds are stacked against them.



John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012. Ballasts of Memory installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC. Courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.

Weaving together a diverse range of archive footage, newsreels and readings from texts by William Blake, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Mervyn Peake, Akomfrah’s film explores the rich tapestry that is Hall’s cultural identity, an identity, which, as the theorist himself put it, was “formed at the unstable point where the ‘unspeakable’ stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of a history”. Indeed, Akomfrah’s film is much more than a portrait of Hall, it is also an account of postwar Britain during a period of enormous upheaval. As Hall explains: “Britain was an old class society becoming a mass society; this is the period of the coming of television, the coming of youth culture … the explosion of the 20th century in a pre-20th-century society.”



John Akomfrah, Psyche, 2012. Ballasts of Memory installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC. Courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.

The exhibition’s third and least convincing inclusion is Psyche (2012), another three-channel video installation, shown this time on old-fashioned television screens. Comprising a series of appropriated film clips, the work, we are told, explores the role of the human face in cinema as a means to convey history, although what this actually means is not elaborated on. Instead, what emerges is a loose study of cinematic conventions, which in turn points to broader systems of representation. Scenes from films that have been highly influential on Akomfrah, including Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Kenneth Macpherson’s Borderline (1930),Peter Watkin’s Culloden (1964), Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and his unfinished Que viva México! (1932), are spliced together to form an unsettling and ultimately perplexing montage of anguished and grieving faces. Clocking in at eight minutes, it is the shortest and most intimate work here, but also the least refined and, as such, the least accessible.



John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012. Ballasts of Memory installation view, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 2019. Photo: Rob Harris © 2019 BALTIC. Courtesy of the artist, Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.

With just three works, Ballasts of Memory is a modest show. Yet, with a running time of around 100 minutes, there is little sense of being short-changed. Indeed, in addition to being splendidly installed, the limited selection encourages sustained viewing and it is testament to Akomfrah’s skill as a film-maker and visual storyteller that the lengthiest pieces, despite their non-linear, multilayered style, are able to captivate and engage so completely. Akomfrah’s consistency in shining a light on the precarious history of diasporic peoples does much to counterbalance the sea of amnesia in which he says our culture is so prone to swim. Certainly, his powerful melding of history with subjective experience, the archival and the contemporary moment ensures that his works, along with the issues they address, are not easily forgotten.



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