Somewhere Beyond a Symphony: John Akomfrah’s ‘Purple’ at the Barbican Centre

I’ve long been an admirer of the work of John Akomfrah, marking him down in my mind as an artist who genuinely has something to say. He not only has the power of original thought, but the range and imagination to say what he truly means, while simultaneously taking your breath away.

Following on from his peerless ‘Vertigo Sea’ (2015), his latest installation work ‘Purple’ is the artist’s response to incremental shifts in climate change and how these changes manifest themselves in humanity on an individual, and a global level. Akomfrah has woven together hundreds of hours of archive footage with newly shot film, and a sweeping score, and created something beyond a symphony. Akomfrah’s film is actually our funeral march, an elegy to the corruptibility of man on both a practical and spiritual level.

It’s impossible to see all of work ranging across the various screens at the same time – in the audience our heads flick backwards and forwards as if unwilling to miss a moment of our own decline. De-sensitised as we are now to the horrors of the Trump presidency, and our everyday exposure to bad news and global threats, Akomfrah still makes us gasp with the depths of our own depravity.

I had been toying with the idea of becoming vegetarian for a very long time, being as I was, unable to reconcile the level of suffering involved in meat consumption to my need to actually eat meat. Akomfrah shines a light on that briefly in his films with vivid archive imagery of animals suffering for human need and made me, from that point forward dedicated to pursuing a path in which my needs are not the ultimate end goal.

I put it to the artist that we as humans are toxic, but ultimately tragic in destroying ourselves, and our eden. He agreed that this was a succinct way of framing the debate that his film will undoubtedly provoke.

“Above all else, the story of climate change is a story of human tragedy. You’re born and you’re schooled into work to basically poison the planet and yourself in order to earn. It’s a tragedy’.

I also asked him what he felt he was saying about climate change in this exhibition that hadn’t been said before

‘Absolutely nothing. Except that artists have a duty to view things and come up with answers in their own idiosyncratic ways of looking. I would hope that people coming to see this work will see that this is what it means to take climate change seriously.’

John Akomfrah’s is a vital voice in a world in need of it. Long may he question our basest nature – in there, he may just find the answers that ultimately save us….or help us save ourselves.


John Akomfrah ‘Purple’ | The Curve, Barbican Centre | Until January 7th | Free Admission

Image : Installation View The Curve, Barbican Centre, 06 October 2017 – 07 January 2018 Photo by Anthony Harvey / Getty Images

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