John Akomfrah: Tropikos presents the artist’s 2016 film Tropikos, which examines the original encounter between European explorers and the people of Africa in the 16th century. This large-scale video installation was filmed in the Tamar Valley and Plymouth, England—a location with significant, if often forgotten, ties to the slave industry: it is where the first British slaving excursion set sail for Africa. The region and its waterways would become England’s primary hub for the slave trade, serving as the point of departure for numerous major expeditions and as the base for the industry’s bureaucratic functions.
Tropikos unfolds as a series of rich tableaux vivants—still, silent scenes—that intermix characters and objects from African and European contexts. These transpositions suggest the inseparability of colonizer and colonized, while reminding us of the extent to which the prosperity and power of Western centers hinged on the violent subjugation of non-Western peoples. The film’s voiceovers are drawn from the writings of various historical European seafarers, as well as passages from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. These interwoven texts, juxtaposed with the lavishly depicted inversion of cultures and peoples, inject the film with a hallucinatory quality, offering a hyperreal waking dream of the 1500s. John Akomfrah: Tropikos marks the North American debut of this film.
John Akomfrah (b. 1957, Accra, Ghana) is a highly esteemed artist, filmmaker, theorist, and curator, as well as a cofounder of the Black Audio Film Collective—an influential association that focused on examining black British identity through film and media. He has had solo exhibitions at venues such as Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen; STUK Kunstencentrum, Leuven, Belgium and Arnolfini, Bristol, United Kingdom; Bildmuseet Umeå, Sweden; Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, East Lansing, Michigan; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and Tate Britain, London. In 2008, Akomfrah was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). He holds honorary doctorates from University of the Arts, London; Portsmouth University; and Goldsmiths, University of London. Akomfrah lives and works in London.
Highlights from the Exhibition
"John Akomfrah: Tropikos" is organized by PAMM Associate Curator Diana Nawi with support provided by Knight Foundation.