Editor’s note: On Thursday afternoon, Seattle Art Museum announced that it is closing all its locations through March 31, due to coronavirus concerns. The artist and his work, nonetheless, is well worth knowing about. 

From the rhythmic sound of water lapping against a boat to the saturated textures and colors of 16th-century clothing, John Akomfrah’s videos lure the senses. He invites us to sit and look and listen as image after image rolls over us. And with them come ideas and histories, ebbing and flowing and seeping into one another: contact between Africans and Europeans, the environment, slavery, whaling, the recent migration crisis, Afrofuturism of the 1990s.

Akomfrah, who is Ghana-born and London-based, has been making video art, documentaries and feature-length films for decades. His stellar reputation as an artist and filmmaker was forged through a resonant blend of archival and created footage, lush soundtracks and timely histories and ideas that overlap and unfold, as if you’re discovering them yourself.

In addition to winning numerous international film prizes for individual works, Akomfrah has had solo exhibitions at the Tate Modern in London, the Secession in Vienna and the New Museum in New York City, which one critic said should be “required viewing for those who consider themselves activists, artists, critics or leaders — or people who simply want to expand their worldview.”

Now, the Seattle Art Museum has transformed its special-exhibition galleries into three screening rooms, giving us a rare West Coast opportunity to see Akomfrah’s work on big screens with rich sound systems in an exhibit titled “Future History,” running through May 3. Additional galleries provide bits of context: African sculpture, notes from Akomfrah’s research and quotes from the varied scientists, writers and cultural thinkers who have influenced the artist.

It’s the first time SAM has presented a special exhibition devoted to video.

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“John’s work has this unique quality of drawing upon emotional reactions, memories and visceral responses in a way that elevates video beyond the ubiquitous media environment we all live in,” says Pam McClusky, SAM’s curator of African and Oceanic art, who organized the exhibit. “It’s a different kind of involvement, in particular, with moments in history that have not gotten very nuanced representation.”

The show revolves around three works, each with a running time of around 40 minutes, although it is entirely possible — revealing, even, given their nonlinear narratives — to slip into them at any point.

The oldest and perhaps best-known piece is “The Last Angel of History” (1995), created during a time of rapid internet and digital expansion and just after the term “Afrofuturism” was coined to describe the imagining of new worlds informed by Black culture and perspectives. Akomfrah’s work is a “sci-fi documentary about Africa, history and memory,” according to Smoking Dogs Films, the production company founded by Akomfrah and two other members of the acclaimed British “cinecultural” group Black Audio Film Collective, producers Lina Gopaul and David Lawson.

Video still from 1995’s “The Last Angel of History.” (Courtesy of Smoking Dog Films and Lisson Gallery)
Video still from 1995’s “The Last Angel of History.” (Courtesy of Smoking Dog Films and Lisson Gallery)

The single-channel color video follows the time-traveling “Data Thief” as he uncovers the past and future of Black culture and its connections with technology. Akomfrah splices together themes of dizzying technological development and cultural pride and alienation through original interviews with figures such as Funkadelic and Parliament frontman George Clinton, science fiction author Octavia Butler and activist and “Star Trek” actress Nichelle Nichols. 

Fast-forward 20 years to the other two works in the show, “Tropikos” and “Vertigo Sea,” and we continue to find montaged histories and layered cultural connections. But these recent videos have evolved from the earlier embrace of tech glitchiness to more fluid editing and sumptuous imagery.

Viewers take in “Tropikos” (2016), a 36-minute film that’s part of Seattle Art Museum’s exhibit “John Akomfrah: Future History.”  (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Viewers take in “Tropikos” (2016), a 36-minute film that’s part of Seattle Art Museum’s exhibit “John Akomfrah: Future History.” (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“Tropikos” (2016) was filmed in and around Plymouth, England, once a center for maritime trade and a point of departure for colonialism. Akomfrah brings together staged, quietly tense moments of connection or isolation between people from Africa and Britain in the 16th century. Informed by firsthand accounts of preslavery contact, the video exchanges an easily digestible narrative for a stream of fraught and gorgeous vignettes, overlaid with lush sounds and voiced snippets of literature.

Seattle Art Museum visitors watch “Vertigo Sea” (2015), a film showing as part of the “John Akomfrah: Future History,” exhibit. The film is split into three screens showing simultaneous images; only two screens are seen here. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Seattle Art Museum visitors watch “Vertigo Sea” (2015), a film showing as part of the “John Akomfrah: Future History,” exhibit. The film is split into three screens showing simultaneous images; only two screens are seen here. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“Vertigo Sea” (2015), which debuted at the prestigious Venice Biennale exhibition, is as sweeping and tumultuous as its name implies. On three big screens, we take in scenes of desperate migration, brutal slavery and gruesome animal hunting. But there are also deeply soulful whale and water sounds, and achingly beautiful visions of sea creatures and … so much oceanic imagery on such a scale that the undercurrents of sublimity and crisis are undeniable. While many may, understandably and thankfully, take it as a call for environmental action, it is also a transcendent reminder of our positions within the vastness of the natural world.

“Vertigo Sea” (2015) is one of three works that comprise “John Akomfrah: Future History,” which opened March 5 at Seattle Art Museum. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
“Vertigo Sea” (2015) is one of three works that comprise “John Akomfrah: Future History,” which opened March 5 at Seattle Art Museum. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Together, the three works offer insight into the creative mind of an important artist, someone who offers new ways of piecing together knowledge.

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Sitting down with the artist, who was in town for the opening of the show earlier this month, our conversation ranged from the technical to the philosophical. And even those topics were treated to the special Akomfrah touch, as he wove them together with graceful references to music history, literature and film theory, all interspersed with the occasional self-deprecating chuckle.

About his celebrated use of montage, he says, “When you put two images together, something else comes out, a third meaning. This is very, very true. But montage is also a way of understanding how opposites in general — not just in the cinema — can be persuaded to have a conversation.”

For Akomfrah, that cinematic approach is like philosophy, a way of comprehending the world. “As opposites have conversations, or as they are persuaded to at least potentially sit at the table in preparation for conversation, something miraculous happens,” he says. “Life itself happens.”

The art-world context (rather than, say, a movie-theater context) for this show is also important; it frees us from the expectation that we are going to sit back and receive a tidy story with a clear beginning, middle and end. The context, and Akomfrah’s entire montage approach, encourages us to seek and construct meaning.

Moreover, we are asked to do so in a shared space. McClusky says Akomfrah has linked this kind of deliberate, communal viewing with growing up as a young Black man in London, where he wasn’t always made comfortable in galleries and museums. When he found cinema, McClusky says, “he felt welcome. And it was a sense of solace having everyone look in the same direction.”

In a quote from SAM’s press release, Akomfrah said: “My work offers an experience that pushes against this era of small screens and isolation. Amnesia is the sea we all swim in; ‘Future History’ invites you to gather in a collective act of witnessing.”