It would be both wonderful and daunting at the same time to have access to the amounts of archive footage and hand-directed footage that John Akomfrah has to wield with for creating his multiple screen-based works. Selecting, cutting and editing together their sound and time becomes a collage of multiple moving images and stories that are testament to the role of the director as both artist and editor. The Russian film director, Tarkovsky described filmmaking as ‘sculpting in time’ and every opportunity when I experience seeing Akomfrah’s work, that is almost certainly the impression one gets! A point I have mentioned here on this blog before, click here. I’ll never get tired of it, it’s a great analogy that highlights the often hidden or unnoticed role of the filmmaker who is responsible for both the physical and metal process of editing with the illusionary concept of time when it is captured on film.
In her essay on John Akomfrah’s ‘Purple’ being shown at The Barbican in London, Professor in Cinema Studies, Kass Banning alludes to the title of the work with lines from Jimi Hendrix’s song ‘Purple Haze’. Though the two aren’t deliberately related, it is a fantastically apt observation and conicidence to make the relationship between the lyric in Purple Haze, “Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time.” with the sense of urgency versus deferred responsibility.
Elsewhere waves undulate, huskies pull a sleigh, jellyfish float in peaceful green seas like translucent slices of cucumber, dancers perform in films by Ken Russell, a man undergoes hypnosis, bicycles are made in factories and ridden around English industrialised streets of the 1940s, cattle and chickens are farmed, ‘worker-bee-like office workers dash around in frenzied formation’, storms rage and stillness reigns over seas. It is an insane list of imagery that does it no favours describing it all here, but whose juxtaposition curated against quotes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘In Memoriam AHH’ , shots of people and water flowing (a metaphor for the passing of time and also reference to the melting of polar icecaps) across photographs alludes to the temporary nature and flux of our own lives as individuals on the planet and the bigger picture of us as a species. [Coincidently, the title ‘Purple’ referring to the purple colouring used to dye the running water, possibly significant of pollution/toxicity, is a reference to the vertigo of his other film, ‘Vertigo Sea’and is also a colour present in many of the shots.] The locations of trees, mountain-scapes and vast fields overshadowed by cooling-towers or used tyres or cannisters is both sickeningly overwhelming as it is beautiful. As Akmofrah himself states, “You can’t watch Mirror (1975) by Andrei Tarkovsky without being aware that this is a project trying to deal with really uncomfortable stuff. You find out later that it’s about his father leaving his mother to go fight in the Second World War and people making enormous sacrifices. The difficulty lies precisely at the junction between something that is incredibly beautiful to you and absolutely terrifying at the same time.” In that way it reminds me of the documentary films by Chilean directorPatricio Guzmán, whose films ‘The Pearl Button’  and ‘Nostalgia for the Light’  or‘Behemoth’  about the Chinese coal industry who both use literary references, poetic metaphor and visuals to frame the difficult and shocking revelations made in the work as a documentary. It would be impossible not to reference Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Koyaanisqatsi’  whose footage of global phenomena focusing on nature, humanity and the relationship between them to which Akmofrah’s work feels like a continuation of or reminder for the current generation that these issues are still relevant if not more so than ever.