John Akomfrah, On the Verge


Arts & Culture

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, video installation.

When I get to the New Museum’s survey exhibition of John Akomfrah’s work, “Signs of Empire,” I find myself lying on the floor, a bootleg antianxiety trick I’ve been practicing over the past few weeks in many places: on the hardwood floors of a friend’s apartment, the cold vinyl of my kitchen floors, the mat at the university gym, the bathroom tiles of a church basement. The supine position opens up the thorax, where the heart and lungs live. With the back half of my body in contact with the floor, I am obliged to acknowledge that the ground has not fallen beneath me. In Akomfrah’s sensorium, I feel sonic vibrations thumping up my spine. I would rather feel nothing at all.

Vertigo Sea, Akomfrah’s three-screen HD work originally made for the 2015 Venice Biennale and re-presented at the New Museum, is mesmerizing. The viewer should not be able to look away. But an anxious mind does not rest: minutes after watching the film, I pull out my phone, eyes averted. Every smartphone user and exec who pays good money to “unplug” knows that small screens, too, can overwhelm.


The New Museum exhibition, which closed at the end of the summer, borrows its name from Expeditions One: Signs of Empire (1983), the first production of the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC). Active from 1982 to 1998, BAFC was a group of black British artists and filmmakers that included Akomfrah, who was born in Accra and raised in south London, as well as Reece Auguiste, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Claire Joseph, and Edward George. (The film-score composer Trevor Mathison joined the group after Joseph left in 1985.) Inspired by a collective interest in the African diaspora, radical politics, avant-garde film, literature, and art, BAFC was established when the group were undergrads at Portsmouth Polytechnic. They came together during a reckoning period in Britain’s history, marked by the afterlife of colonialism and the overlapping forces of racism, Thatcherism, state domination, class exploitation, policing, fascist groups, and riots.

Confusion, dread, and neglect pulse through Expeditions One: Signs of Empire’s atmosphere, an assemblage of slide-tape visuals, loops of political speeches, and musique concrète. Like a ghost story, the film opens with the sound of wind blowing. A few minutes in, the words THE ANXIETIES / COLONIAL RHETORIC are superimposed on the screen in an off-kilter typography, the kind a child might adopt while learning to write. At first I think it says the anxieties “of” colonial rhetoric, but I’m mistaken—the anxieties do not belong or originate in any particular place. They float freely.


In an interview published in the 2012 collection De-Westernizing Film Studies, Akomfrah says that all of BAFC’s oeuvre is about crossroads. Practically, this approach—what the art critic Kobena Mercer has called a “cut-and-mix aesthetic”—involves breaking into Britain’s colonial archive and excavating audiotapes, pages from school textbooks, or images from National Geographic. Expeditions proposes a fragmented visual history, bringing together cases of Lipton tea, elephants, monuments of war, Orientalist paintings, and humans washed ashore. The theme of crossroads becomes even more overt in Akomfrah’s warm and weird science-fictional documentary film-essay The Last Angel of History (1995). The film, which traces an African diasporic legacy of inventing, using, and abusing technologies, cites Afrofuturists whose work swerves in time and space, including Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, and Samuel R. Delany. In the work, a character called the Data Thief (played by the BAFC member Edward George) tells the story of the black American blues legend Robert Johnson, who in the thirties famously sang, “I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees.” For Akomfrah, the crossroads is a pressure point that activates the history of radical aesthetic invention that black people call living.

Frantz Fanon, who worked as a psychiatrist, informs much of Akomfrah’s work, fueling the transformation of inner, supposedly private, feelings into public events and political contexts. At the end of “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” a famous chapter in Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon writes: “When I opened my eyes yesterday I saw the sky in total revulsion. I tried to get up but eviscerated silence surged toward me with paralyzed wings. Not responsible for my acts, at the crossroads between Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.”

Having anxiety is like being confronted with interminable crossroads: crisis after crisis, each of which seems to be your own making. But Fanon and BAFC alike mobilize personal unease to critique the global colonial project. In a 1988 essay, the BAFC member Reece Auguiste writes that Handsworth Songs (1986), Akomfrah’s first film as a director, attempts, using recast British newsreels, to “to bring alive those nervous reflexes, to capture and reconstitute the sensibilities of those who were for over 30 years voiceless.” Auguiste is talking about black immigrants to Britain, but now, another thirty years later, many of those voices—like the Windrush generation of immigrants to the UK—are being dispossessed. For my generation, nervous energy grows like cancer.


John Akomfrah, The Last Angel of History, 1995, video still.


I first saw an Akomfrah film before I knew it was an Akomfrah film. I remember watching the documentary Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993) in my single dorm room at the top of a hill on McGill’s campus in Montreal. I was alone in college, surrounded by people, and had settled into a life of solemnity. My first laptop had a disc drive, and I had gotten into the habit of borrowing DVDs from the university library in a forlorn attempt to stay in at least one night on the weekends. I, like my father, had gone through a phase contemplating conversion to Islam. Converting from what, I never knew. I didn’t take it as seriously as he did (I never went to mosque), and mostly I just crushed on the hero, who I referred to in the margins of his autobiography as “Mal.” (Unlike my entrepreneurial Jamaican father, I had confused wanting to be a black Muslim with wanting to be a black Marxist.)

Whatever I wanted to be, I could dream up. Whatever I was, I did not know. In Seven Songs for Malcolm X—which features interviews with Betty Shabazz, Spike Lee, Robin D. G. Kelley, and others—the activist Yuri Kochiyama recalls the hours before Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City: “There was something in the air, I wouldn’t know how to pinpoint it, but there seemed to be a lot of anxiety.”


Anxiety and restlessness—indescribable things “in the air”—are the crippling muses for much of Akomfrah’s work. Vertigo Sea opens with three navy-blue screens and the sound of a ticking clock. Then: a literal clock on the center screen and expanses of water on the right and left. A few moments later, I find myself overcome by the largess of the underwater shots and by the womb-like sounds of muffled splashes.

Akomfrah’s style blends original footage with archival material, text, and sound. In Vertigo Sea, he uses breathtaking aquatic images culled from BBC’s nature documentaries. The staged scenes, which dramatize the image of Olaudah Equiano, the writer of a famous eighteenth-century slave narrative, look a bit like a Freudian parody: a bowler hat, a cane, a rocking chair, picture frames, books, and clocks, all washed up on shore.

In the seminal 1993 book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Paul Gilroy uses the Atlantic Ocean as an abstraction to argue that the world-shattering displacement of the transatlantic slave trade produced a distinct but diverse African diasporic culture. But if we stand to learn anything novel from his “black Atlantic” framework, it’s that the ocean is not merely a  metaphor. As Akomfrah’s film shows, it is a resource—for birds, dolphins, sunsets, hunters, polar bears, people—and often an exploited one. Through the images of dead migrants alongside hunted whales, Vertigo Sea blurs the human-animal distinction: “The way of killing men and beast,” reads an intertitle, “is the same.”


I had anxiety before I was diagnosed with it. But once diagnosed, it became all I had, a catchall for my feelings.

Still, I plunged into attacked states in specific places—triggers, a professional would call them. I stopped breathing on the subway, in large crowds, in small crowds, in the bathroom at parties. The so-called triggers swelled, and I had a difficult time distinguishing them from the other events of my life. They dilated into moments in which everyone else seemed fine and I was absolutely not fine, which soon described much of the time.

Nevertheless, I continued to have acute attacks. Last year, on the day of the total solar eclipse, I met up with my then boyfriend in Bryant Park to view the allegedly singular event. I had therapy around the corner in an hour but figured I could squeeze it in. Instead of feeling spiritually transformed, a very regular thing happened: I had an anxiety attack. I had become accustomed to a particular experience of Midtown since starting with this new therapist. I was frequently comforted by this neighborhood-without-a-neighborhood’s routine of transiency: professionals speeding on their lunch break, tourists leisurely taking photos, security guards twiddling their thumbs outside buildings. But during the eclipse, Midtown switched up on me. It appeared to be transformed into a utopian community of strangers: everyone with the same gaze toward the sun, sharing eclipse goggles, and texting their friends about the experience. I was certain something brutal was about to happen.




John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012, video installation


The title of The Unfinished Conversation comes from Stuart Hall’s claim that “identity is an endless ever unfinished conversation.” This quote appears early in the center screen, just before the same screen flashes to another Hall quote: “Identities are formed at the unstable point where the ‘unspeakable’ stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of history.” Then, suddenly, on the right, and just as suddenly on the left: pink and white. A sky like a Frank Ocean song.

Another phrase for this “unstable point” where the inside of a life meets the external forces it must contend with is historical conjuncture. Scholars including David Scott and Tony Bennett have said Hall is a theorist of the conjuncture. “For Stuart,” Bennett writes in a 2016 essay called “The Stuart Hall Conjuncture,” “a conjuncture was both a moment of danger and one of opportunity; it was something to intervene in.”

As the scholar Tina Campt puts it in an essay published in the New Museum’s catalogue, The Unfinished Conversation is “neither documentary nor biography.” Akomfrah culls hundreds of hours of Hall’s archival audio and television footage to present an intellectual who managed to write about identity (his own, others) without trivializing it in the fashion of many identity-politics critics today. In the film, Hall narrates his own upbringing in Jamaica before independence, a landscape he calls “the most differentiated class and color system in the world.” He finds a way to narrate seemingly personal conditions as public, political facts.


In the dozens of podcasts, articles, and therapists I’ve consulted in desperation, I’ve heard over and over that movement is crucial to releasing anxious energy. So I move. I get off the subway before my stop, or I switch cars. Though I haven’t cooked in weeks, I fear I’ve left the oven on, so I go home to check and make myself late for a meeting. I walk seventy blocks to a doctor appointment. When I can no longer move, I devise plans to move. In August, I travel to Ghana, Canada, and upstate New York, and in September, I put an even more hysterical number of flights on my credit card.


John Akomfrah, Transfigured Night, 2013, video installation.

Akomfrah makes manifest a kind of open-ended thinking about postcolonial subjects that might otherwise remain repressed. One of his lesser-known video works, the two-channel Transfigured Night (2013)—which references a 1896 Richard Dehmel poem and 1899 Arthur Schönberg string sextet, both named Verklärte Nacht, German for “transfigured night”—is emblematic of something the scholar Christina Sharpe has called “thinking juxtapositionally.” Again and again, Akomfrah places archival footage of the publicness of political life—new African leaders surrounded by crowds, performing for the world stage—next to the privateness of public life, everyday people alone on the streets or in their homes. Transfigured Night features newly independent nations such as Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Vietnam, all born under American hegemony. Some juxtapositions are painfully obvious, like a bird flying on the left screen while a plane flies on the right, while others refuse translation.

The acoustics are a cocoon, hypnotic. To be sure, the subtitle of Transfigured Night is “Five Allegories on the Narcoleptic State,” gesturing at what has become evident: that national independence slept through its own possibility by failing to care for the masses.


As a student and teacher, I find that summers are bad for my anxiety. This summer, there was no there available. No place to fix the problem, though I would try. My mind is constantly rewriting what happened. I was gesticulating too much. I should have said no. My mind also imagines what will happen: I will die, I will not die soon enough, I will say too much, I will not say enough. Every day this summer, I had a list of things to do but no plan. I had never felt more alone. I would catch my reflection in some window or mirror and see another person, a person alive and walking around. But inside, I felt so much terror I did not know how I did it, this living thing, this walking-around thing.

All night, every night, I couldn’t close my eyes without noise: a guided sleep meditation, J. B. Smoove’s episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the gurgling of an aromatherapy diffuser. I needed to be surrounded.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if it gets worse,” I told my twice-a-week therapist the day before she went on a two-week vacation. She proceeded to name a “good” psychiatric emergency room I could check myself into. The end of the session approached. I told her I didn’t want to leave. She nodded, clinically. I then had a fantasy that I should occupy her room: lie on the couch, curl into a ball underneath her abstract-expressionist painting, and like a little brat, refuse to leave. Make me.

After she said nothing, I said, “Okay, bye,” and I left.

It gets worse. The ground I had spent the summer crawling on inevitably disappears. It gets worse, but I did not check myself into the hospital. I did not die. I see doctors; they give me safety-plan templates, anxiety worksheets, phone numbers, meditation recordings, prescriptions, treatment programs. Fighting for my life, I try do everything right; I work out, meditate, show up for my appointments, try to eat, take my meds but still, in the end, dream about diving into nothingness.


Tiana Reid is a writer and Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in publications including American Quarterly, Bitch, Canadian Art, Real Life, Vice, Vultureand The New Inquiry, where she is an editor.