In speaking about his landmark piece, Vertigo Sea (2015), at the Whitworth in March, John Akomfrah expressed a sincere concern for humankind’s respect for both each other and the planet. An influential practitioner since the 1980s – first founding the Black Audio Film Collective and recently winning the 2016 Artes Mundes Prize – Akomfrah’s works are typified by their exploration of the African diaspora in Europe and the US, focussing on themes of memory and post-colonialism through a mélange of archive and contemporaneously-shot footage. Vertigo Sea is no different: it intensifies Akomfrah’s thirst as a visual activist and storyteller, amalgamating a spectrum of emotion and history into an epic 48-minute video composition.
Forging an equilibrium between ethical vocabulary and anti-humanist content is one of the challenges Akomfrah faced when creating Vertigo Sea, a piece that interjects the beauty of the ocean with the brutality of man’s turbulent rapport with it. The three-screen installation draws on a range of aesthetic stimuli – natural history, slavery, migration and whaling – to activate numerous registers from, as the Whitworth’s Maria Balshaw puts it, ‘multiple histories and ontological positions.’ Thrusting back and forth through a sea of repeated history, it subtly addresses today’s migrant crisis and reminds us that mankind has fought and fled for centuries; and the ocean has always been a place of both opportunity and terror.
Opening with the voiceover of several young Nigerians describing their migratory journey across the Mediterranean we are reminded of the fact that imprisonment and escape span the length of human history. Soon, the tranquility of the BBC’s Natural History archival footage of fish shoals, blossoming plants and the iridescent Northern Lights is pierced by storm-induced scenes of slaughtered whales and polar bears, melting glaciers, decaying beasts and slaves shackled in ships’ holds. As an audience-member your senses are churned by the tremendous contrast between scenes of vivid life cycles and morbid whale guts splayed across the hull of a ship.
This almost textural experience – made possible by the vibrancy and scale of each screen – is interspersed with titles and audio clips of sea-based literature such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote William’s Whale Nation (1988). These texts compound Akomfrah’s skillful and climactic organisation of disparate time periods, cultures and places, and poignantly interrupt the viewer’s engagement in a fleshy and dizzying journey. The positioning of the film’s ‘overseer’, the black 18th century former slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, in the sublime isolation of the Isle of Skye draws us into an adjacent cinematic moment where ideas of trespass and new borders come to light in the juxtaposing of Equiano’s refined costume and the wild landscape.
In a contradictory uniform manner Vertigo Sea promotes a dislocation that exposes the unreliability of cultural memory. The viewer is asked simultaneously, across three-screens, to compare moments that have never before been brought into the same time or context. This to-ing and fro-ing prompts the viewer to consider events in their own time-period such as displacement in the Middle East, as well as concerns closer to home, such as Brexit talks, the expulsion of immigrants and President Trump’s ill-advised proposed travel bans. Ultimately, Akomfrah’s cultural and timely shake-up asks us to contemplate a non-sensical cycle and question why it is that history repeats itself.
Vertigo Sea, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 24 March – 23 July 2017.
Selina Oakes is a writer based in Stoke-on-Trent and York.