The London-based Ghanaian artist, John Akomfrah’s multi-screen film installation Vertigo Sea is an erudite and many-layered exploration of the phenomenon of global migration and its resonance on current issues. Essay by Bomi Odufunade.
Artist John Akomfrah’s mesmeric film, Vertigo Sea is refreshingly unequivocal in its execution: an enthralling montage of perplexing images and sounds, it consistently throws the viewer into scrutinising current heightened concerns on race, identity and migration.
In today’s globalised world gripped by a refugee crisis, the 48-minute multi-screen film installation effectively encapsulates the prevailing social and political discourse in what could be characterised as a despondent climate of panic.
Vertigo Sea first premiered as part of the Nigerian curator, art critic and writer, Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures exhibition at the 2015 Venice Biennale. It received critical acclaim and the work has been touring major venues across the UK, starting at the Turner Contemporary, Margate, followed by the Arnolfini, Bristol and is now on view at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester.
It continues the Ghanaianborn and London-based artist’s exceptional ascent. Following his debut solo show at Lisson Gallery, a contemporary art powerhouse in 2016, he was awarded the UK’s leading art prize, Artes Mundi 7, this year in January.
Akomfrah positions the history of global migration at the centre of his film, which has been described as “part fiction, part film essay, part natural history documentary, using archival footage [and] newly shot documentary.”
He lays out his images, sourced from the BBC’s Natural History Unit, interspersed with new material shot on the Isle of Skye, in the Faroe Islands and in the north of Greenland and Norway.
He uses a triptych video installation, presented across three screens simultaneously, to facilitate his storytelling that depicts the horrors of the sea and its relationship with migration.
This allows the filmmaker and artist to collage layers of historical footage of whale and polar bear hunting, and images from the slave trade, to enable an examination of marine life juxtaposed with human life as well as environmental concerns.
Akomfrah enhances audience reflection in Vertigo Sea by the presentation of three images at a time and continually changing the order of sequences; he is interested in reshaping the interrelation between the alternating scenes to facilitate a shifting, multifaceted storytelling.
Between terror and allure Nigerian immigrants form the basis of the introductory narration, retelling stories of their survival after an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean in search of what they envision to be a “better life”. The work enacts a journey about these encounters with the ocean and the ambivalent role it has in human experience, whether through a passage of adventure or an odyssey of fatality.
Vertigo Sea is characterised by an ambiguity between terror and allure: the audience is dazzled by a procession of black-and-white scenes of sea and marine life – ships leaving port, sailors merrily dancing – and at the same time repelled by ghastly images of the skinning and flensing of whales.
“I was compelled to make Vertigo Sea because you are sitting there listening to someone refer to migrants as cockroaches. And you think, what is going on here? How do people migrate from being humans to cockroaches?
Akomfrah intercuts his film with a series of original vignettes, portraying isolated figures from different centuries staring soberly out to sea. Given the landscapes they are in, they create a romantic interlude and are laden with iconographic aesthetics, such as objects recovered from a shipwreck – for instance, a bicycle, clocks and a pram. The predominant message from these figures is an investigation into the human spirit while showing the artist’s need to probe personal identities.
Akomfrah says, “I was compelled to make Vertigo Sea because you are sitting there listening to someone refer to migrants as cockroaches. And you think, what is going on here? How do people migrate from being humans to cockroaches? What do you have to forget? What is the process of amnesia that allows the kinds of forgetting that builds into hierarchies in which there are beings and nonbeings?”
Over the years, Akomfrah has established himself as one of the UK’s most innovative filmmakers, exploring issues of multiculturalism and post-colonialism. Growing up in England – Akomfrah moved from Ghana to England with his family at a young age – he has persistently highlighted the experiences of the African diaspora.
He first came to public attention in the early 1980s as a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, a group of black British multimedia artists and filmmakers. The collective was revered for its commitment to grappling with themes of social and political unrest in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The group collaborated by producing documentaries exploring black cultural presence and representation in British society.
Their film Handsworth Songs (1986) is considered a significant experimental independent film; an exacting essay, it documents the year of 1985 when England was gripped by a series of riots, notably in Handsworth in Birmingham and Broadwater Farm in London. Over 30 years later, the film remains poignant in its discernment of racial tensions.
Littered with literary and artistic references throughout, there is an erudite undercurrent within the Vertical Sea narrative. There are spoken extracts from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Heathcote Williams’ Whale Nation, which yields a compelling visual image. It highlights a multitude of questions which still resonate today: considering the inferences of the ocean, its intrinsic forces and complex enormity.
The filmmaker furthermore draws on J. M. W. Turner’s acclaimed seascape, The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On).
Created in 1840, the painting illustrates a ship in a turbulent sea, with scattered black bodies strewn and floating amidst the waters.
It is thought that the British painter was referencing the Zong massacre in 1781 in which 133 Africans of the slave ship Zong were thrown overboard in order to collect insurance payments.
While Turner’s painting is a reminder of the shameful Atlantic slave-trade past, with Africans being killed at sea for profit, Vertigo Sea allows contemporary comparisons with the drowning of Syrian refugees in the Mediterranean and how Middle Eastern and African immigrants are risking their lives in hazardous journeys across the ocean to reach Europe in search of a preferable life.
Akomfrah notes: “The archive is a memory bank which connects to the questions of mortality. The image is one of the ways in which immortality is enshrined in our psyche and in our lives. You make a documentary because you want to both capture something that’s going to die unless it is captured; but you are also trying to capture something because you want it to live.”
Akomfrah is prescient in his interpretation of modern-day travails in Vertigo Sea; in creating a compelling piece of fictive realism he artfully uses an adept ocular language to analyse collective history and consciousness.
‘Vertigo Sea’ by John Akomfrah is on view at the The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester through to 28 August 2017.