Aesthetica Magazine

History & Change: Interview with John Akomfrah

Aesthetica Magazine sent this email to their subscribers on January 22, 2024.


John Akomfrah is a multidisciplinary artist known for his documentary practice that highlights topics of social, economic and political unrest. His work has exhibited at Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou and the Guggenheim, whilst this year, he has been chosen to represent Great Britain at the 60th Edition of the Venice Biennale in 2024. Akomfrah, is renowned for his thought-provoking pieces that examine issues on colonialism and climate change. Here, Aesthetica interviews the artist on his multi-screen installation Arcadia, shown at The Box, Plymouth. 

 
 ” 7, Sl s
 

A: What does the title Arcadia symbolise?
JA:
I’ve been asked quite a few times what Arcadia refers to and what it means. I think somewhere in the European imagination there was the sense of the elsewhere; that the ‘New World’ was as a place of refresh, restart, new beginnings. And in this fantasy of a new beginning, lies an idea that’s been with us since the Greeks – that there is a place where we can be ourselves, where we can be free. The problem is that Arcadia can often have a downside: somebody’s free world is always somebody else’s hell. So, the title has an ironic detachment, and is also rooted in reality. I think people had a genuine desire to do something heroic, but many unintended consequences usually come attached to gestures of that kind. You may want to create heaven, but in the process you end up with something else.
 
 
 
 
A: Can you tell us more about the sites that inform the project?
RA:
We were originally going to do a multi-screen piece for The Box’s opening and the anniversary for the pilgrim landings. We’d gone to North America and found the places we were going to film. We’d decided on Vancouver Island as our main spot, but we were also going to go to Washington. We came back from the last reccy in the week that Britain closed its doors because of the pandemic. For three years we pretty much couldn’t do anything – but those three years allowed the possibility of a rethink. At the heart of the pilgrim journey project was a mystery that I hadn’t quite figured out, and that was to do with the fact that when the pilgrims arrived, essentially the place they arrived at was empty. They encountered this depopulated space because earlier waves of European arrival had brought with them a cocktail of viruses and diseases, smallpox in particular.
 
 

 
 
A: The sense of human conquest emerges strongly from Arcadia. It looks at colonisation through the “Columbian Exchange”, the spread of peoples, plants and diseases between Europe and the Americas. How did you represent this?
JA:
 In a way this is something I’ve been involved with a lot; trying to make projects in which questions of the human, the environmental, the historical and the archival play some sort of ensemble role. The pandemic was the catalyst and it made us realise that you could make a project in which, irrespective of the ambitions of people, other forces, other agencies play significant roles. The settling of the ‘New World’ is always told as a kind of human drama but actually, a significant part is played by non-human actors. So, one of the things we wanted this project to be about was the ‘Columbian Exchange’ – this mode of circularity in which the act of travel ends up depositing things in a place. But also where you end up importing things back that have an impact – some intended, some unintended.
 


 

A: What do you want viewers to feel at the exhibition?
JA:
 I hope every viewer connects with it in a way that feels authentic to them and their experiences. I hope it encourages conversations whether they’re about colonialism, the power of the archive, the power of storytelling, the role Plymouth played in the story of the settling of the New World. I also hope it makes them think about the complexity of migration. We forget that in the last 500 years there have been colossal movements, but they’re not just one way.

 



  
 
 

All images  © courtesy of John Akomfrah.
 

Text-only version of this email

Documenting Arcadia | Movement, Water and Memory ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- John Akomfrah is a multidisciplinary artist known for his documentary practice that highlights topics of social, economic and political unrest. His work has exhibited at Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou and the Guggenheim, whilst this year, he has been chosen to represent Great Britain at the 60th Edition of the Venice Biennale in 2024. Akomfrah, is renowned for his thought-provoking pieces that examine issues on colonialism and climate change. Here, Aesthetica interviews the artist on his multi-screen installation Arcadia, shown at The Box, Plymouth.  ” 7, Sl s A: What does the title Arcadia symbolise? JA: I’ve been asked quite a few times what Arcadia refers to and what it means. I think somewhere in the European imagination there was the sense of the elsewhere; that the ‘New World’ was as a place of refresh, restart, new beginnings. And in this fantasy of a new beginning, lies an idea that’s been with us since the Greeks – that there is a place where we can be ourselves, where we can be free. The problem is that Arcadia can often have a downside: somebody’s free world is always somebody else’s hell. So, the title has an ironic detachment, and is also rooted in reality. I think people had a genuine desire to do something heroic, but many unintended consequences usually come attached to gestures of that kind. You may want to create heaven, but in the process you end up with something else. A: Can you tell us more about the sites that inform the project? RA: We were originally going to do a multi-screen piece for The Box’s opening and the anniversary for the pilgrim landings. We’d gone to North America and found the places we were going to film. We’d decided on Vancouver Island as our main spot, but we were also going to go to Washington. We came back from the last reccy in the week that Britain closed its doors because of the pandemic. For three years we pretty much couldn’t do anything – but those three years allowed the possibility of a rethink. At the heart of the pilgrim journey project was a mystery that I hadn’t quite figured out, and that was to do with the fact that when the pilgrims arrived, essentially the place they arrived at was empty. They encountered this depopulated space because earlier waves of European arrival had brought with them a cocktail of viruses and diseases, smallpox in particular. A: The sense of human conquest emerges strongly from Arcadia. It looks at colonisation through the “Columbian Exchange”, the spread of peoples, plants and diseases between Europe and the Americas. How did you represent this? JA:  In a way this is something I’ve been involved with a lot; trying to make projects in which questions of the human, the environmental, the historical and the archival play some sort of ensemble role. The pandemic was the catalyst and it made us realise that you could make a project in which, irrespective of the ambitions of people, other forces, other agencies play significant roles. The settling of the ‘New World’ is always told as a kind of human drama but actually, a significant part is played by non-human actors. So, one of the things we wanted this project to be about was the ‘Columbian Exchange’ – this mode of circularity in which the act of travel ends up depositing things in a place. But also where you end up importing things back that have an impact – some intended, some unintended. A: What do you want viewers to feel at the exhibition? JA: I hope every viewer connects with it in a way that feels authentic to them and their experiences. I hope it encourages conversations whether they’re about colonialism, the power of the archive, the power of storytelling, the role Plymouth played in the story of the settling of the New World. I also hope it makes them think about the complexity of migration. We forget that in the last 500 years there have been colossal movements, but they’re not just one way. All images  © courtesy of John Akomfrah. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Change email address / Leave mailing list
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