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March 8 – March 10, 2014

John Akomfrah, A Poet in the Archives

John Akomfrah premiered his debut film, Handsworth Songs (1986), at a time of great ferment in British cinema, as it confronted a political landscape of anti-racist struggle, the beginnings of the AIDS crisis and the Thatcherite attack on organized labor. At the same time as Isaac Julien, Sally Potter and Hanif Kureishi were beginning their careers, Akomfrah helped form the Black Audio Film Collective, brought to international prominence by the success of Handsworth Songs.

Over the subsequent decades, Akomfrah has continued to combine experimental and political cinema while creating a body of work that covers nearly every genre of the moving image imaginable: documentary, experimental, fiction, essay film, video art, installation, TV series and all their various combinations and permutations. What binds this work together is an attention to the history of Black culture in the Anglophone world over the past few centuries, with a special attention to the recent histories of modernity and postmodernity.

Born in Ghana in 1957 and educated in England from a young age, Akomfrah has become a cinematic counterpart to such commentators of and contributors to the culture of the Black diaspora as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Greg Tate and Henry Louis Gates. In doing so, he has continued to mine the audiovisual archive of the 20th century, recontextualizing these images not only by selecting and juxtaposing them but also through the addition of eloquent and allusive text. In Memory Room 451 (1997), Akomfrah speaks of memories become dreams and vice versa. In similar fashion, his films use found footage to create cinematic poetry and then use this poetry to tell history afresh.

Akomfrah’s method is both to mark the achievements of leading cultural and political figures while capturing fragments of ordinary Black lives that would otherwise be lost to the winds of history. It is from this interweaving that his work achieves its sense of urgency and its complex emotional impact.

The HFA welcomes Mr. Akomfrah and his partner and producer, Lina Gopaul to the HFA for two enlightening evenings of films and conversation.— David Pendleton

Special thanks: Renee Green – MIT

Saturday March 8 at 7pm

The Last Angel of History

Directed by John Akomfrah
UK 1995, digital video, color, 45 min

A truly masterful film essay about Black aesthetics that traces the deployments of science fiction within pan-African culture. Akomfrah begins by comparing and contrasting three musicians of eccentric genius – Sun Ra, George Clinton and Lee Scratch Perry – and their use of the images of the spaceship and the alien, and then moves on to Black science fiction writers Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany. Suggesting that the spaceship and the alien have obvious resonances with the diasporic condition of exile and displacement, Akomfrah ultimately widens his net to include everything from Walter Benjamin to DJ Spooky while tracing an itinerary through Black music and science fiction on the way to a revealing look at modernity as it enters the digital age.

Followed by

Memory Room 451

Directed by John Akomfrah
UK 1996, digital video, b/w and color, 25 min

The subject matter of Memory Room 451 is the cultural and historical significance of 20th-century hairstyles – the Afro, the conk, dreadlocks – in Black communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Akomfrah has disguised this exploration as a science fiction story – in the manner of the groundbreaking writers profiled in The Last Angel of History – while providing a bravura display of the aesthetics of video art in the 1990s. The tale of visitors from the future who gather dreams from unwitting subjects in order to construct a history of the Black diaspora both defamiliarizes Akomfrah’s ongoing project and points to the danger that extracting history from memory can be a kind of expropriation.

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$12 Special Event Tickets
John Akomfrah & Lina Gopaul in person

Sunday March 9 at 7pm

Handsworth Songs

Directed by John Akomfrah
UK 1986, digital video, b/w and color, 61 min

The Handsworth area of Birmingham has historically been a gritty working-class neighborhood, housing workers for nearby factories and foundries. By the 1980s, it was home to large populations of Caribbean and Sikh immigrants, and was the site of rioting in 1981 and 1985. In Akomfrah’s achingly poetic first film, he both documents the riots and their immediate aftermath but also recalls the everyday lives of longtime residents. How did the bright hopes of those who arrived in the 1950s give way to the feelings of rage or hopelessness expressed in the rioting? In the years since the film was made, Handsworth has been the site of further rioting.



Directed by John Akomfrah. With Monique Cunningham, Trevor Mathison
UK 2012, digital video, color, 18 min

Akomfrah imagines the lives of the African models for two Albrecht Dürer drawings by presenting a man and a woman wandering in desolate landscapes marked by a foreboding, chilly beauty.

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$12 Special Event Tickets
John Akomfrah & Lina Gopaul in person

Monday March 10 at 7pm

The Stuart Hall Project

Directed by John Akomfrah
UK 2013, digital video, b/w and color, 103 min

Who better to make a film on the life and ideas of one of the founders of Cultural Studies than a fellow Black Briton who has been both a student of and an important contributor to that field of intellectual practice? Stuart Hall (b. 1932) is a foundational figure, a respected intellectual and, in Britain, a well-known public figure. Akomfrah’s ambitious documentary is at once a history of the beginnings of cultural studies and a biographical portrait, very much in the filmmaker’s patented vein of weaving together the personal and the sociopolitical. One of the goals of cultural studies is to trace the degree to which subjectivity is constructed out of the language and images of the mass media as well as those of various subcultures. And so Akomfrah has cleverly fashioned his portrait entirely from archival footage of Mr. Hall and his times, accompanied by the evocative use of the music of Miles Davis.

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