John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah wearing glasses, standing in a museum gallery with gold framed paintings in the background.

John Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana, in 1957. A pioneering filmmaker, Akomfrah creates multichannel video installations that critically examine the legacy of colonialism, the Black diaspora, and environmental degradation. Akomfrah weaves together original footage with archival material to create stirring, layered narratives that juxtapose personal and historical memory, past and present, and environmental and human crises.

During a period of political and social unrest in 1980s England, Akomfrah co-founded the Black Audio Film Collective, a group that developed a groundbreaking experimental style to center Black identity and culture within the British experience. Their celebrated works, such as Expeditions One: Signs of Empire (1983) and Handsworth Songs (1986), are deeply critical portrayals of modern Britain that use archival, newsreel, and original imagery to contextualize civil unrest as the result of a long history of discrimination and suppression of Black citizens by British society. By 1998, Black Audio Film Collective disbanded, but Akomfrah continued making art with two founding members, Lina Gopaul and David Lawson. Since then, Akomfrah has developed his signature multilayered filmic style, creating enormous, multichannel video installations with soundtracks of haunting musical compositions and readings from historical texts. His epic films draw connections across time, history, and themes, poetically weaving together topics such as the cruelty of the whaling industry and the Atlantic slave trade (Vertigo Sea, 2015); the effects of climate change on humans and our ecological landscapes (Purple, 2017); and the wave of recent refugees from Africa, declining elephant populations, and Ghana’s layered political history (Four Nocturnes, 2019).

Akomfrah studied sociology at Portsmouth Polytechnic in Portsmouth, England. His numerous awards include the Artes Mundi Prize (2017); honorary doctorates from Portsmouth University (2014), University of the Arts, London (2013), and Goldsmiths, London (2013); Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (2008); and the Taipei Golden Lion, Taipei Film Festival, Taiwan (1999). He has had solo exhibitions at Seattle Art Museum, Washington (2020); Secession, Vienna, Austria (2020); Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Massachusetts (2019); Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon, Portugal (2018); New Museum, New York (2018); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California (2018); National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (2017); Turner Contemporary, Margate, England (2016); Tate Britain, London, England (2013); Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, England (2012); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011), and others. His work has also been included the Venice Biennale, Italy (2015, 2019); Prospect, New Orleans, Louisiana (2017); Sharjah Biennial, United Arab Emirates (2013); Sundance Film Festival, Utah (2011, 2013); Liverpool Biennial, England (2012): Taipei Biennial, Taiwan (2012); Documenta, Kassel, Germany (2002); Cannes International Film Festival, France (1989); among others. Akomfrah lives and works in London.

Read more


Conversation Starter

How can history matter in the present?

Using objects, images, or written material from the past, artists create a window into our present.

“I’m interested in the conversation between noise—the ways in which noise suggests direction for images.”

John Akomfrah