‘I Like the Vulgarity of it’: Watch John Akomfrah Use Noise and Music to Engross Audiences in His Video Works

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

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "John Akomfrah: Conversations with Noise." © Art21, Inc. 2021.

Watching one of John Akomfrah’s multi-channel video installations is like walking into an alternate reality, one that collapses past and present, music and noise, epic landscapes and banal scenes of everyday life.

Akomfrah, who was born in Accra, Ghana in 1957, co-founded the Black Audio Film Collective in England in the early 1980s, centering Black identity during a period of social and political unrest in the country. Though the group disbanded in the late 90s, Akomfrah’s work continues to focus on the Black diaspora, along with other social and environmental issues, which he wraps up in sonic layers that give the viewer a peek into his headspace.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "John Akomfrah: Conversations with Noise." © Art21, Inc. 2021.

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “John Akomfrah: Conversations with Noise.” © Art21, Inc. 2021.

In an exclusive interview with Art21, Akomfrah explains how he developed his multifarious style, remembering a pivotal time as a university student, “standing by a window, not feeling really great,” when music by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt came on the radio and spoke to him. “The music said ‘You are in this space, and it is possible to occupy this space differently,'” Akomfrah explains in the video. “In the course of 16 minutes, a new music composition changed how I saw time, and by implication, myself in it.”

Pärt’s sonic compositions, like Akomfrah’s visual ones, are sweeping and epic, but also cut to the personal experiences each viewer brings to their encounter with the work. Akomfrah remembers another instance, visiting night clubs in London as a young man, and losing his inhibitions surrounded by others, because “the music will license these recognitions” of a shared experience, he says. “Sonic ways of knowing the world are as important as all the other ways.”

And while critics disparaged his heavy use of sound and music in early works, Akomfrah embraced it. “I like the vulgarity of it,” he says. “That’s the point. The new comes into being via the pathway of vulgarity.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s Extended Play series, below. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making 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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