Ghanaian-British video artist John Akomfrah was announced as winner of the UK’s biggest prize for international contemporary art for his gorgeous video work Auto Da Fé, on Thursday January 26th.
Every 2 years, artists who engage with socio-political issues and the human condition are considered for the coveted Artes Mundi 7 award. This time around, 6 were in contention: A mixed-media work dealing with the legacy of war-torn Beirut by Lamia Joreige; a dystopian installation imagining a future city by Bedwyr Williams; an agricultural-based sculpture by Amy Franceschini; and a work addressing big pharma by Angolan artist Nástio Mosquito.
Ken Skates AM, Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, made the announcement in Cardiff. Auto Da Fé’s wooden, static and self-conscious costume tableaux engages with humankind’s centuries-long tradition of migration and refugees. It uses the aesthetics of a period drama to consider the historical and contemporary causes of migration. Akomfrah said the work was made partially as a response to the “shameful” hostility suffered by millions of people seeking sanctuary in Europe as they flee their homes in Africa and the Middle East. It weaves together moments taken from 400 years of history, describing communities or ethnic groups persecuted and driven from their land: Sephardic Jews fleeing from Brazil to Barbados in 1654 to the recent Isis-driven genocide of the Yazidis in Iraq and Christians in Mosul.
Judges felt that the work courageously grappled with some of the biggest debates of the moment around immigration, diasporas and human belonging, and presents a logical argument. Yet, in his opinion, being anti-immigrant and anti-EU were, “irrational and illogical, driven by fear and prejudice”.
Akomfrah said, “We are currently experiencing the worst discussion of migration I have lived through, in the 40 years I have observed these debates… It feels bleak, it feels intolerant and it feels frightening… Most of the ideas in Auto Da Fé were really about saying to people: ‘You really have to consider the option that people are migrating literally to survive. They come here to be able to live, because there isn’t an alternative anywhere else.’ And that seems to be an insight that has been lost.”
Born in Ghana, but moved to the UK as a child, Akomfrah has remained aware of how migration is addressed here, driving almost all his work:
“Trump I didn’t see coming but Brexit I did… The unfinished conversations from the 1960s were always there. They were just given a body and a form in the debates that led up to Brexit. And I started to sense that in 2009 which is why I first started making these works.”
He added: “You could hear it in the way people referred to migrants as ‘other’, portrayed as swarms of subhuman insects. Even at the lowest points of migration debates before, I had never heard that before. It felt like we had crossed a threshold of some kind and so I knew I needed to make works that offered a counter-narrative.”
Artes Mundi 7 Judging Chair Oliver Basciano, said, “We are excited to award John Akomfrah the Artes Mundi7 prize in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to art over the past eight years. We do so in recognition of both his newly-presented work Auto Da Fé (2016) and in appreciation of the artist’s ability to tell stories with historical depth, exploring social and political concerns through exquisite cinematic language in films such as Peripteia (2012), Unfinished Conversation (2013), Vertigo Sea (2015). Over his long career, Akomfrah’s practice underlines how art has the unique ability to reflect on and shape the human condition, in alignment with fundamental principles of Artes Mundi.”
The self-confessed “cultural pessimist” admitted that his relationship with Auto Da Fé, and Vertigo Sea – another video work, which also addresses migration – had changed over 2016, as Brexit and Trump demonstrated a shift in popular political favour. It simply created a weightier sense of obligation to “change people’s minds” through his work. “People don’t seem to mind having more foreign banks, more global shops, more Kenyan tomatoes or Turkish strawberries – they just didn’t want more people… the circulation of just about anything is fine, except human beings.”
He hopes the prize will make possible a film he has been hoping to make for more than a decade – the third in a trilogy resurrecting black cultural figures forgotten by history.
The works are in exhibition at Chapter Arts Centre and the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, until 26 February 2017.
For more information, visit artesmundi.org .