Video Picks: John Akomfrah – Why history matters

Whether it’s video installations, feature-length films or documentaries for TV, John Akomfrah’s work ask us to remember the past.


Through watching John Akomfrah’s films you can grasp a sense of history repeating itself. Akomfrah and his deep excavation of archival material, teaches us the importance of history. He approaches the narratives surrounding identity, race and post-colonialism that we are exposed to in school or through news channels with an unwavering and critical curiosity. This way of working with archival footage dates back to his co-founding of ‘The Black Audio Film Collective’ in 1982 and follows through to his career today.

Featured image credit: John Akomfrah’s ‘Vertigo Sea’, 2015. SFMOMA rocor, via Flickr.


Credit: ‘John Akomfrah – Why History Matters’, TateShots. Tate © Tate Digital, London 2015. In the video, we find out more about John’s approach to making films and his commitment to the philosophy of montage to create new forms and meaning.


Another interesting aspect of John’s work is the way he uses three screens installed side-by-side as in works like ‘Vertigo Sea’, which was first exhibited at the Venice Biennale in May 2015. ‘Vertigo Sea’ is a video installation which montaged different clips together and mixed archival with original footage. For the viewer this meant making a choice as to what was in focus and what was left in the periphery. I think this is a really interesting comment on the elusivity of memory, history and our consciousness when thinking about borders and migration- recurring themes of John Akomfrah’s work. It also highlighted the unique experience of the individual as each person viewing the installation could come away with a slightly different understanding of what they’ve watched.

John also talks about our ‘amnesia’; of our complicity in this state of forgetting about the past. By juxtaposing images across three screens, he comments on the multiplicity of meaning, and demonstrates his resistance to these people’s stories being erased along with their bodies. His work creates a conversation around borders and migration, and also promotes the longevity of voices that he wants to preserve in our consciousness such as sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall. And this for me is the exciting bit about the use of archives. Artists can rewrite and re-centre what we learn; challenge the status quo, and in turn lay the foundation of our creative practice.

Looking for more inspiration?

Discover more of John Akomfrah’s work online via IMDb

Explore work produced by Smoking Dogs Films, a film and TV production company founded by John Akomfrah and other members of ‘The Black Audio Film Collective’

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