John Akomfrah on representing Britain at the 60th Venice Biennale: ‘I am both terrified and enjoying being in charge’

Listening All Night To The Rain, an immersive soundscape installation, continues the artist’s exploration of the experience of migrants — ‘individuals with their own reasons for coming here’ — through moving images. He spoke to Jessica Lack about his approach to this ambitious new work

Artist John Akomfrah, who describes migration as a 'profoundly utopian project', photographed by Jack Hems

Sir John Akomfrah at the British Pavilion in Venice, where his installation Listening All Night To The Rain is on show. Photo: Jack Hems

When the Ghana-born British artist John Akomfrah was working on a film about the Jamaican-British cultural theorist Stuart Hall, the two got chatting about an artist they knew. ‘What’s his imaginary?’ Hall asked.

‘How are you supposed to answer that?’ says Akomfrah, sitting in his north London studio, laughing at the recollection. ‘But it was just like Stu. He needed to understand the totality of a person.’

It is 10 years since Hall died, yet you could say Akomfrah has continued this mode of interrogation. The artist tells allegorical stories about the cultural complexities of diaspora. Just as the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott said his work could be summarised on a postcard with the words ‘Wish you were here’, Akomfrah’s beautiful, elegiac films embody the sense of loss and melancholy that comes with the feeling of not quite belonging.

The filmmaker concedes that much of his practice is, like Hall’s writing, a way of holding the conversation open, arguing with orthodoxies around colonialism and reconfiguring elements of the past with the present. His works are like variations on a theme, offering multiple perspectives on the same story.

John Akomfrah, The Nine Muses, 2010 (still). Single-channel HD video

John Akomfrah (b. 1957), The Nine Muses, 2010 (still). Single-channel HD video. © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery

Take the haunting The Nine Muses (2010), a gorgeously shot film installation about the history of mass migration from Africa and the Caribbean to post-war Britain. Combining archival material with newly shot film using actors, Akomfrah asks us to consider what is truth, who is behind the camera and what is their motivation. ‘There is a tendency for migrants to be represented on film as an amorphous group, rather than individuals with their own reasons for coming here,’ he says.

That multiplicity of voices is the subject of Listening All Night To The Rain, the artist’s forthcoming show as Britain’s representative at this year’s Venice Biennale. His exhibition — the full details of which are to be released on 16 April — will be an immersive installation of deep listening or, as the artist puts it, a soundscape through ‘the entire range of voice music’.

It is the third time that the artist has participated in the Biennale. In 2015 he featured in the late Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition All the World’s Futures, and in 2019 he was one of six artists represented in the Ghanaian Pavilion. This time around he is ‘both terrified and enjoying being in charge’.

John Akomfrah (b. 1957), Listening All Night To The Rain, 2024 (still). © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery. Photo: Jack Hems

Akomfrah says part of the inspiration for the work comes from arguments he had with his mother as a teenager. ‘We used to have these passionate conversations about American music, which my mother, being an old communist, was very wary of. She would say that it didn’t matter if it was Black or White music, we should be cautious because it comes from this place that’s going to take over the world.

‘My brothers and I would defend our right to listen to James Brown with the same passion she had for urging us to be sceptical of it. Those were profound conversations: we were listening to each other trying to figure things out.’

Sir John Akomfrah was born in Accra in 1957. His father, a member of President Kwame Nkrumah’s socialist government, was killed following a violent military coup in 1966. Fearing for her life, Akomfrah’s mother took the family abroad, first to the US and then to the UK, where they settled in west London. Akomfrah studied sociology at Portsmouth Polytechnic, and was one of seven undergraduates who founded the Black Audio Film Collective.

Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah, Handsworth Songs, 1986. 16mm colour film transferred to video, sound

Black Audio Film Collective, John Akomfrah (b. 1957), Handsworth Songs, 1986. Single-channel 16mm colour film transferred to video, sound. 58 minutes 33 seconds. © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

The group came to prominence in 1986 with the film Handsworth Songs, directed by Akomfrah and shot during the 1985 race riots in Birmingham. ‘People seemed mystified as to why the riots were happening,’ Akomfrah recalls, ‘but we were exploring colonial archives at the time, surrounded by all this information that revealed just how much the aspirations of the early Caribbean immigrants had soured.’

Handsworth Songs avoided the traditional cause-and-effect narrative associated with documentary filmmaking in favour of a non-linear format incorporating news footage, interviews, songs and stories taken from the archive. ‘We wanted to leave space for people to imagine, reflect and consider, without being overly pedagogic,’ says Akomfrah. On its release, the film was seen as radically avant-garde and artful; today it is considered pioneering.

The film won the Grierson Award for Best British Documentary, and the group followed up that success with further works exploring the African and Asian experience in Britain. Akomfrah says he is interested in how identities are formed in transit, and describes migration as a ‘profoundly utopian project. You leave believing you are going to a better place, so when that goes wrong, it lies somewhere between where you are now and where you started off from.’

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015. Three-channel HD colour video installation

John Akomfrah (b. 1957), Vertigo Sea, 2015. Three-channel HD colour video installation, 7.1 sound. 48 minutes 30 seconds. © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

The collective disbanded in the 1990s, although David Lawson and Lina Gopaul continue to work with Akomfrah at Smoking Dogs Films. The production company is based on the first floor of a large block in north London, between a creche and a wrestling gym. Does he miss being part of a larger group? ‘I miss the anonymity,’ he says. ‘There’s something uncomfortable about people stopping you in the street — I shall never get used to that.’

The artist acknowledges that his films have become more biographical since leaving the collective: ‘the theme of loss, definitely, and a lot of the subjects are about disenchantment’. In 2014 he was nominated for the Film London Jarman Award for Peripeteia (2012), a film inspired by two drawings by Albrect Dürer; in 2017 he won the Artes Mundi prize for the poetic Auto Da Fé, which looked at migration through the lens of religious persecution.

Listening All Night To The Rain will be something of a departure because of its focus on sound. ‘I’m interested in the conversation between noise, not just music, but the way noise suggests directions for images,’ says Akomfrah. The artist has spoken in the past about the redemptive possibilities of music. In 2021, he recalled how listening to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel as a student had opened up the world to him: ‘The music said, “You are in this space and it is possible to occupy this space differently and I am going to tell you how.”’

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Representing Britain during a time of ideological division is a challenge the artist is not afraid of confronting. ‘There are a million different ways of being British,’ said Hall, and Akomfrah’s installation at the British Pavilion gives us a sense of what that sounds like. Currently he is investigating various sound protocols to stop the dissonance between the pavilion’s five exhibition spaces, but then, he says, ‘It might be that we just embrace the bleed.’

The British Council commission, Listening All Night To The Rain by John Akomfrah, is on show at the British Pavilion at the 60th Venice Biennale from 20 April until 24 November 2024. Christie’s is a supporting partner of the British Pavilion

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