‘I’m More Choreographer Than Creator’: See How Artist John Akomfrah Merges His Disparate Fascinations Into Stunning Films

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "London" episode of "Art in the Twenty-First Century," Season 10. © Art21, Inc. 2020.

John Akomfrah‘s multichannel video installations are all-encompassing: the color, sound, and especially juxtaposition of historical footage with contemporary imagery make for a truly absorbing experience. And while his works address some of the most urgent present-day issues, Akomfrah also draws inspiration from the art of the past: he traces his interests back to masterpieces by artists like Constable and Turner that he encountered as a teenager visiting Tate Britain, after his family moved from his native Accra, Ghana.

Turner’s my guy because there’s an act of will and imagination, which is at the forefront with what I call his ‘cinematic eye,'” the artist says in an interview with Art21. “It’s a painting, but it feels like you’re in the disaster.” The interview is part of the new season of the acclaimed PBS series’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series.

Akomfrah gestures to the turbulent ocean, a hallmark of Turner’s work, which figured heavily in his 2015 film Vertigo Sea. That work is an episodic meditation on the sublime beauty and horror of the water, incorporating scenes of migrants crossing the expanse in hope of a better life, images of the whaling industry, and readings of Moby Dick along with archival and newly shot footage.

“I’m more choreographer than creator,” the artist explains in the video, “I became interested in making multi-screen films because it seemed a way of bringing disparate interests together.” For Akomfrah, the addition of archival material introduces another voice, and so another perspective. 

Still from John Akomfrah's Vertigo Sea (2015). ©Smoking Dogs Films, courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Still from John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015). ©Smoking Dogs Films, courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

For Art21, Akomfrah details personal experiences and global issues that he’s engaged in his films, including Brexit, race riots, the military coup in Ghana that forced his family to flee for Britain, and a number of other political and social events. All of those historical strands, the artist says, helped to shape his own view.

Once you’ve understood that you are a product of things, you can’t shake off realizing that from across your life,” he says.

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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