John Akomfrah is a hugely respected artist and filmmaker, whose works are characterised by their investigations into memory, post-colonialism, temporality and aesthetics and often explore the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the USA. Akomfrah was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, who he still collaborates with today. Their first film, Handsworth Songs (1986) explored the events surrounding the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a charged combination of archive footage, still photos and newsreel. The film won several international prizes and established a multi-layered visual style that has become a recognisable motif of Akomfrah’s practice. Recent works include the three-screen installation The Unfinished Conversation (2012), a moving portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s life and work; Peripeteia (2012), an imagined drama visualising the lives of individuals included in two 16th century portraits by Albrecht Dürer and Mnemosyne (2010) which exposes the experience of migrants in the UK, questioning the notion of Britain as a promised land by revealing the realities of economic hardship and casual racism.
Mnemosyne refers to the mother of the Nine Muses, the personification of memory in Greek mythology. Akomfrah’s tone poem is split into verses named after the daughters of Mnemosyne: Tragedy, History, Music, Sacred Song, Astronomy, Comedy, Erotic Love and Dance.
Created for the ‘Made in England’ project, Mnemosyne uses a vast array of archival material to hauntingly recast and retell the experiences of postwar immigrants – resuscitating the now familiar images of our multicultural and diasporic histories.
Centering on the West Midlands from 1960 - 1981 and interlaced with images of an unidentified frozen wasteland, contemporary ‘portraits’ of Brimingham, narrative and literary voices and a dub infused soundtrack Mnemosyne is an evocative bricolage which questions memory and suggests the possibility for endless re-interpretation of historical events.
Photo © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery.