‘Sonic Ways of Knowing the World’: Hear How Artist John Akomfrah Blends Sound Into His Monumental Video Installations

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

John Akomfrah with Mimesis: African Soldier at IWM London. Courtesy of the museum and Smoking Dog films.

When considering the most compelling aspects of film, it’s natural that what it looks like often takes precedence over all else. But for the artist John Akomfrah, a pioneer of multichannel film installations that address colonialism, collective memory, and cultural identity, what a piece sounds like is equally, if not more important, in telling a story.

Akomfrah, who will represent the United Kingdom at the 2024 Venice Biennale, spoke to Art21 in an exclusive interview about how “conversations with noise” help him weave rich, compelling narratives on screen. In 1982, when he was an undergraduate student, Akomfrah co-founded the Black Audio Film Collective, which forefronted a radical approach to filmmaking incorporating news footage and aspects of straight-documentary work, along with personal experiences of Blackness in Britain during political and cultural upheaval. That experience laid the foundation for Akomfrah’s continued work with found audio and music as striking accompaniments to his layered visuals.

Speaking to Art21, the artist recalled having his work described as “vulgar” because of its use of “so much sound.” In response, the artist simply said, “Yeah, yeah!… I like the vulgarity of it. That’s the point.”

For Akomfrah, discovering the nightclub scene in the U.K. as a young man introduced him to the different identities and cultures that are associated with musical techniques and styles. “Over the course of two hours, there would be you and a group of people, and you will literally discover each other in that music,” he said of his nights in the clubs. “The music would license these recognitions that are not speech.”

“One of the things that I learned very early on is that there are sonic ways of knowing the world,” he added, “which are as important as all the other ways.”


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