John Akomfrah

Artist and Filmmaker

Sir John Akomfrah is a hugely respected artist and filmmaker, whose works are characterised by their investigations into memory, post-Colonialism, temporality and aesthetics, and often explore the experiences of migrant diasporas globally.

He was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982. He still collaborates with fellow co-founders David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, alongside Ashitey Akomfrah, under the auspices of Smoking Dogs Films. Their first film, “Handsworth Songs” (1986) explored events surrounding the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a charged combination of archive footage, still photos, newly shot material and newsreel. The film won several international prizes and established a multi-layered visual style that has become a recognizable motif of Sir John’s practice. Other works include the three-screen installation “The Unfinished Conversation” (2012), a moving portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s life and work; “Peripeteia” (2012), an imagined drama visualising the lives of individuals included in two 16th-century portraits by Albrecht Dürer; and “Mnemosyne” (2010), which exposes the experiences of migrants in the U.K., questioning the notion of Britain as a so-called promised land by revealing the realities of economic hardship and casual racism.

In 2015, Sir John premiered his three-screen film installation “Vertigo Sea.” Fusing archival material, readings from classical sources and newly shot footage, it focuses on the disorder and cruelty of the whaling industry and juxtaposes it with scenes of many generations of migrants making epic ocean crossings in search of a better life. In 2017, he presented “Purple” — his largest film installation to date — at the Barbican in London. The film addresses climate change, human communities and wilderness. He debuted “Precarity” (2017) at Prospect New Orleans, following the life of forgotten New Orleans jazz trumpeter Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden.

In 2018, he participated in the U.K.’s World War One arts program 14–18 NOW with his multi-screen installation “Mimesis: African Soldier,” which commemorated African and colonial participants who fought, served and perished during the so-called Great War. In 2019, he presented “Four Nocturnes” in the Ghana Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, a three-channel piece reflecting the intertwined relationship between humanity’s destruction of the natural world and of ourselves. In 2023, he premiered two major five-channel pieces at the Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present — “Arcadia,” reflecting on the Columbian Exchange between the Americas, Afro-Eurasia and Europe from the 1400s; and “Becoming Wind,” an allegorical representation of the Garden of Eden and its disappearance. 

Born in 1957, Sir John lives and works in London. His works have been presented in solo exhibitions at The Box, Plymouth, England (2023); Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt (2023); the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (2023) and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. (2022); Remai Modern, Saskatoon, Canada (2022); Towner Eastbourne, England (2021); Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona (2021); Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Seville (2020); Seattle Art Museum (2020); Secession, Vienna (2020); the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, England (2019); ICA Boston (2019); Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon (2018); New Museum, New York (2018); Bildmuseet, Umeå University, Sweden (2015, 2018); SFMOMA, San Francisco (2018); Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid (2018); Barbican, London (2017); Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (2017); Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, São Paulo (2017); 2017 Perth International Arts Festival, John Curtin Gallery, Curtin University, Australia (2017); Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne (2017); CoCA Center of Contemporary Art, Christchurch, New Zealand (2016); Turner Contemporary, Margate, England (2016); Nikolaj Kunsthal, Copenhagen (2016); STUK Kunstencentrum, Leuven, Belgium (2016); Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University (2014); Tate Britain, London, (2013–14) and a weeklong series of screenings at MoMA, New York (2011).

His work has been shown in international group exhibitions including “Entangled Pasts, 1768-now,” Royal Academy, London (2024); Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present, United Arab Emirates (2023); “Global Ghana,” The Africa Institute, Sharjah, UAE and Accra, Ghana (2022); “Fault Lines: Art and the Environment,” North Carolina Museum of Art (2022); “Posteriority,” Museum of Contemporary Art Busan, South Korea (2021); “Family: Visions of a Shared Humanity,” Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2021); “Am I Human to You?” Art Museum KUBE, Ålesund, Norway (2021); “Affect Machine: Self-Healing in the Post-Capitalist Era,” Taipei Fine Arts Museum (2021); “Terminal,” City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand (2020) and Ghana Pavilion, 58th Venice Biennale: May You Live in Interesting Times (2019); “Strange Days: Memories of the Future,” The Store X, London (2018); “Histórias Afro-Atlânticas,” Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, São Paulo (2018); “From where I stand, my eye will send a light to you in the North,” Te Tuhi Museum, Auckland (2018) and Prospect New Orleans (2017); “The Restless Earth,” La Triennale di Milano (2017); “Unfinished Conversations,” MoMA, New York (2017); “British Art Show 8” (2015–2017); 56th Venice Biennale: All the World’s Futures (2015); “History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain,” Hayward Gallery, London (2015); “Africa Now: Political Patterns,” SeMA, Seoul (2014); Sharjah Biennial 11: Re:Emerge Towards a New Cultural Cartography (2013); Liverpool Biennial, England (2012); and Taipei Biennial (2012). He has also been featured in many international film festivals, including Sundance and Toronto.

He was awarded the Artes Mundi Prize in 2017 and a knighthood for services to the arts in the 2023 New Year Honors.


Portrait of John Akomfrah. Photographer: Christian Cassiel. ©️John Akomfrah; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah