AFTER MAKING A SHORT LIST of six artists from around the world vying for the UK’s top prize for international contemporary artists, John Akomfrah has won the Artes Mundi 7. Exploring the historic arc of migration, Akomfrah’s work is particularly pertinent given the migration issues and refugee crisis—and surrounding humanitarian concerns and political debates—currently dominating international cooperation and nation-state decision making. The selection of the British artist and filmmaker was announced at a ceremony at the National Museum Cardiff. The prize includes a cash award equivalent to about $50,000 US.

“I am absolutely touched by this and enormously grateful for the chance it offers to finally finish off something I have been planning for over a decade,” Akomfrah said when the news was announced. “Over the years, Artes Mundi has chosen some very brilliant artists for this award: all were important artists doing challenging and engaged work, and to join that group is a huge honour and responsibility.”

Seven hundred artist nominations from 90 countries were considered. Akomfrah was chosen from a short list including Angolan artist Nástio Mosquito, along with Neïl Beloufa (France/Algeria), Amy Franceschini/Futurefarmers (US/Belgium), Lamia Joreige (Lebanon), Hito Steyerl (Germany, and Bedwyr Williams (UK/Wales). Last year, Chicago artist Theaster Gates was awarded the Artes Mundi 6.

AKOMFRAH’S FILMS are studies in contrast, aesthetic masterpieces that beautify challenging histories with mesmerizing images and evocative soundtracks. Generally working with single- and multi-channel films, the Ghanaian-born artist explores memory, post-colonialism, and the African diaspora.

As the announcement noted, “…he allows us to reconsider the ways in which we think about both personal and collective histories, the grand narratives of our times, across nation states and continents. His work has often given voice to underrepresented communities and their universal stories…”

Karen Mackinnon, director of Artes Mundi, praised the selection of Akomfrah. “The Artes Mundi 7 Prize was awarded for Akomfrah’s presentation of ‘Auto Da Fé’ and for a substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution. To speak of these things in this particular moment feels more important than ever,” she said.

“The Artes Mundi 7 Prize was awarded for Akomfrah’s presentation of ‘Auto Da Fé’ and for a substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution. To speak of these things in this particular moment feels more important than ever.”
— Karen Mackinnon, Artes Mundi Director

“Auto Da Fé” means acts of faith in Portuguese. The film was first shown in 2016 at Lisson Gallery London, and then presented over the summer at Lisson Gallery New York, Akomfrah’s American debut. Examining the universal nature of migration through the lens of religious persecution, “Auto Da Fé” documents eight historic migrations over the past 400 years, from 17th century Brazil to modern day Mali and Iraq. It situates the past with the present, with the hope that it might provide some insight for the future.

“The work is really about a number of instances, events if you will, across an expanse of four centuries in which groups of people felt that their lives were somehow being shaped by forces of destruction—religious persecution, economic hardship—essentially the reasons why people feel, ‘Okay, I’ve got to go. I can’t stay here because if I stay here, I am going to die,'” Akomfrah explains in the video below.

“The key encounter between a refugee from Afghanistan or Syria, you know, Iraq, Yazidi, Christian, Muslim, who’s trying to get to Europe and somebody from the past, is that they have to do it by the sea. But when they do it by the sea, they have to navigate death. They have to navigate the corridor of uncertainty and in that corridor lies, really, death. And that is the case for most people now, which is, you know, it’s like, really? In our modern world? Is the cost for simply looking for a better life, death? Why should that be?”

Akomfrah’s work is on view along with the other shortlisted artists at the National Museum Cardiff, through Feb. 26. CT

 

TOP IMAGE: John Akomfrah. | Photo by Jack Hems © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy of Lisson Gallery

 


After winning Artes Mundi 7, artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah discusses his work. | Video by British Art Council

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an editorially independent solo project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for your support.