BLOG Stanzi Collier-Qureshy

NWR Issue 110

John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea

John Akomfrah’s Vertigo SeaJohn Akomfrah was born in 1957 in Ghana and currently lives and works in London. He is an artist, a filmmaker and one of the founding members of the Black Audio Film Collective. His films have been shown at international festivals, including Cannes and Sundance.

It’s a good thing that the Arnolfini has such comfy seats because the exhibition Vertigo Sea, much like the ocean, is hypnotising and impossible not to watch for the allotted forty-eight minutes. Played constantly on a loop, it doesn’t matter when you enter, it all winds seamlessly together to both shock and awe its audience.

‘I am a wanderer and a mountain climber.’

When I entered the dark room on Saturday 9 April, the final day of this exhibition, I was overwhelmed by the three huge screens that take centre stage, much like a series of canvases. A voice occasionally echoed, deep and gravelly, smooth and grave. The images spread across each screen varied and yet were intrinsically linked, their light sporadically bathing the room in an eerie underwater blue. Repeated motifs were images of men and women gazing off screen or out to sea, clocks washing up on beaches, roiling stormy waters filled with myriads of submerged marine life.

‘What I’ve dared I’ve willed. What I’ve willed I’ll do.’

But the exhibition video wasn’t all beauty. Exploring the history of the sea and sea industries, Akomfrah includes startling sepia and black and white clips from whaling trips and polar bear hunts. Shots reverberate through the dim gallery as on one screen a polar bear is skinned for its coat, its blood darkening snow, and on another, baby bears in the sea are being shot at. These striking images of real-life hunters, interspersed with relaxing scenes of humpbacks swimming, jelly fish floating and even the odd elephant, came together to tell a difficult story of a terrible and breathtaking beauty and our place in a timeless world.

‘The sea is history.’

A companion to ‘Vertigo Sea’ was the similar yet drastically different ‘Tropikos’, again by Akomfrah, an experimental drama influenced by Paradise Lost, Water and Dreams and, perhaps most vividly, Shakespeare’s The Tempest. A quiet and creeping voice recites the poetry again and again as sound effects pulsate.

‘A Kingdom for a Stage / Admit me to your history.’

Set in the colonial sixteenth century, this almost Brechtian drama explores how stories are re-imagined while reminding its audience of the price of empire. It starkly displays Europe’s history as an expanding power and its dark role in the slave trade.

‘Creatures of a Higher Mould.’

Characters jolt you out of the drama by addressing you directly, their eyes unblinking. The motif, continued from the first piece, of clocks and time challenge us to reassess our place in the world, both geographically and temporally.

‘It’s about sovereignty.’ ~ John Akomfrah.

The final aspect of the exhibition is an interview with the artist exploring his intentions. He talks about the history of galleries and exhibitions. Repeatedly using the word ‘sovereignty’, Akomfrah concludes that art is about being respectful to the place (be it city, country or sea) and of our space in it.

Still shots and artist interview

This is the last of the blogs by Stanzi Collier-Qureshy as part of her placement with New Welsh Review via Cardiff University's School of English, Communication & Philosophy

This exhibition moves to Newlyn Art Gallery and the Exchange in Penzance, Cornwall, from 30 April until 25 June Preview this Friday, 29 April from 6.30pm (7.30 non-members), and tours to venues including the Whitworth, Manchester and Turner Contemporary, Margate, during the remainder of 2016 and during 2017


previous blog: Jenny Hall’s Hollow at Aberystwyth Arts Centre
next blog: Oriel Davies Open 2016: Painting


A brief note on copyright:all authors have given permission for their work to appear online on New Welsh Review's website. Copyright remains with the author. If you wish to reproduce part or all of any article then the permission of the author must be sought, and the author and New Welsh Review credited accordingly.

Contact us:Registered Office PO Box 170, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 1WZ - Telephone 00 (44) 1970 628410
© New Welsh Review Ltd, all rights reserved - Registered in England and Wales - Registered number: 02493828
Website design: mach2media and mopublications      Website development: Technoleg Taliesin Cyf.