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Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah at The Whitworth

By Jo Manby

The Whitworth, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6ER
This exhibition was on view until 23rd July 2017.

The Whitworth has some fantastic exhibitions on over the summer, I’m especially excited to see the gallery’s contribution to the New North and South programme, bringing the work of South Asian artists to prominence. But before I talk about the current exhibitions (watch this space next week) I want to reflect on another piece we saw there recently that had a profound effect on me: Vertigo Sea, a three-screen film installation by the artist, filmmaker and founder member of Black Audio Film Collective John Akomfrah.

the image shows three large cinema screens in a row in a dark room, each showing different images, one shows a boat on a rough sea, one shows a misty forest, one shows a burning forest
John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015. ©Smoking Dog Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Akomfrah is perhaps best known for his work with personal and group cultural identity and memory and his focus on the African diaspora in Europe and the US. An early work produced with Black Audio Film Collective, founded in 1982 and active until 1998, was the renowned Handsworth Songs (1986) shot during the 1985 riots in Handsworth and London.

For Vertigo Sea, using footage gathered from the BBC’s Natural History Unit and shot on location on the Isle of Skye, the Faroe Islands and northern Norway, Akomfrah montaged archive film and photography to produce a lyrical, haunting elegy to people lost at sea. This was interwoven with themes of migration, diaspora, and man’s attempts to control and overcome wild nature, as well as man’s inhumanity towards man. With shots of the atomic explosion over Hiroshima and its after-effects, man’s catastrophic attempts to outdo nature were also foregrounded.

Akomfrah referred to several works of literature throughout the film: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation (1988). Footage of whaling and polar bear hunting expeditions played out with a moving soundtrack that stayed with me for days after I’d seen the film. Archive stills of enslaved Africans and filmed reconstructions of the Atlantic slave trade were off-set with expansive aerial views of birds in flight, breaking waves and corroded, watery landscapes.

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015. ©Smoking Dog Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Later in the 48 minute film we heard the spoken testimonies of witnesses to Argentinian disappearances, where dissident were loaded onto aircrafts, flown out over the sea and dropped into it from the skies.

Some of the footage was hard to watch and at times I found myself averting my eyes from the more challenging images, to look instead at what was on one of the other screens. But this begs the question, should we be bearing witness to all of man’s inhumane acts rather than flinching away from discomfort? It is like a kind of courtesy, that Akomfrah offers us three screens to choose from and the option of looking away. If the film was single screen it would be quite unrelenting, and would certainly have lost some of its poetic force. The edit, combined with the soundtrack, shown across three screens, tempered the material and wove together numerous themes to create a compelling, transfixing visual narrative.

The themes of the film, while couched in historic terms, are highly contemporary: the enduring existence of enslavement, the hazardous voyages of migrants and refugees crossing the seas, the savagery and greed of the whaling industry, the ecological harm being done to the planet. Through the use of readings from classical literature, the point that none of this is new, but entrenched in human history, was powerfully made.

Read more…

Back at Resource Centre there are numerous books in the collection that refer to these themes. The Immigration section of the library contains items such as:
When people hear the real story behind asylum they sometimes think again, Refugee Action
Vietnamese community development programme, Refugee Action – an overview of Vietnamese refugees resettlement in the United Kingdom

Elsewhere on the blog:
Book Review: Empire of Necessity
One Way Ticket to the World

On the web:
John Akomfrah at the Lisson Gallery
Vertigo Sea at the Ian Potter Museum of Art
John Akomfrah: Migration and Memory in The Guardian

By aiucentre

An open access library specialising in the study of race, ethnicity and migration. Part of the University of Manchester and based at Manchester Central Library.

2 replies on “Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah at The Whitworth”

[…] As promised, my next review of The Whitworth’s summer exhibitions explores the art of London-based artist Raqib Shaw. His gloriously opulent exhibition is part of the South Asia art and culture programme that marks the 70th anniversary of Partition. The programme is part of the work of the New North & South network which involves ten North of England organisations. […]

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