John Akomfrah

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John Akomfrah
Born (1957-05-04) 4 May 1957 (age 59)
Accra, Ghana
Occupation Film director
Years active 1986–present

John Akomfrah, OBE (born 4 May 1957)[1] is an English artist, writer, film director, screenwriter, theorist and curator of Ghanaian descent, whose "commitment to a radicalism both of politics and of cinematic form finds expression in all his films".[2] A founder of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982, he made his début as a director with Handsworth Songs, which examined the fallout from the 1985 Handsworth riots.[3] Handsworth Songs went on to win the Grierson Award for Best Documentary in 1987.[4] In the words of The Guardian, he "has secured a reputation as one of the UK’s most pioneering film-makers [whose] poetic works have grappled with race, identity and post-colonial attitudes for over three decades."[5]


Akomfrah was born in Accra, Ghana, to parents who were involved with anti-colonial activism. In an interview with Sukhdev Sandhu, Akomfrah said: "My dad was a member of the cabinet of Kwame Nkrumah's party.... We left Ghana because my mum's life was in danger after the coup of 1966, and my father died in part because of the struggle that led up to the coup."[2] Living in Britain since the age of four,[6] Akomfrah was educated at schools in West London and at Portsmouth Polytechnic, where he graduated in Sociology in 1982.[1]

He is best known as one of the founders of the Black Audio Film Collective, which was active between 1982 and 1998, and which was dedicated towards examining issues of Black British identity through film and media.[1] Handsworth Songs, the first documentary produced by the collective, focused on racial tensions in Britain in the 1980s.

In 1998, together with Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, his long-term producing partners, Akomfrah co-founded Smoking Dogs Films.[7]

From 2001 to 2007 he served as a Governor of the British Film Institute.[8] From 2004 to 2013 he served as a governor of the film organisation Film London.[9]

Akomfrah has taught classes and courses at such academic institutions as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,[10] Brown University, New York University, Westminster University, Princeton University. A tri-campus three-day event entitled "Cinematic Translations: The Work of John Akomfrah" was held in November 2013 at the University of Toronto, where he was artist-in-residence.[11] A Harvard Film Archive critique of his work states: "Akomfrah has become a cinematic counterpart to such commentators of and contributors to the culture of the Black diaspora as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Greg Tate and Henry Louis Gates. In doing so, he has continued to mine the audiovisual archive of the 20th century, recontextualizing these images not only by selecting and juxtaposing them but also through the addition of eloquent and allusive text."[12]

Solo presentations[edit]

Akomfrah has had solo presentations at Bildmuseet Umeä, Sweden (2015), Broad Art Museum, East Lansing (2014), Tate Britain, London (2013), Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (2012) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011).

In 2013 his major work The Unfinished Conversation, a multi-layered installation, was shown in Tate Britain for six months in 2013, and was acquired for the National Collection.[13]

His most recent work, Vertigo Sea, is a three-screen film installation that was shown at the 56th Venice Biennale in May 2015.[14][13] Vertigo Sea premiered in the UK at the Arnolfini in Bristol (16 January – 10 April 2016)[15] coinciding with an exhibition of new and recent work by Akomfrah being shown at the Lisson Gallery.[16]

Awards and honours[edit]

Akomfrah was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2008 New Year Honours, for his services to the film industry.[17] In March 2012 he was awarded the European Cultural Foundation's Princess Margaret Award.[18] In 2013 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from University of the Arts London[19] and Goldsmiths, University of London.[20][21] In 2014 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Portsmouth University, the reformed polytechnic from which he had graduated in 1982.[22][23] He has recently been shortlisted for the Artes Mundi prize.[15]

Selected filmography[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "British Film Institute ScreenOnline biography". 
  2. ^ a b Sukhdev Sandhu, "John Akomfrah: migration and memory",The Guardian, 20 January 2012.
  3. ^ Childs, Peter; Storry, Mike, eds. (2002). "Akomfrah, John". Encyclopedia of Contemporary British Culture. London: Routledge. pp. 18–19. 
  4. ^ The Grierson Trust.
  5. ^ Hannah Ellis-Petersen, "John Akomfrah: 'I haven’t destroyed this country. There's no reason other immigrants would'", The Guardian, 7 January 2016.
  6. ^ Mark Hudson, "The Unfinished Conversation by John Akomfrah: a beautiful paean to identity", The Telegraph, 15 October 2012.
  7. ^ Smoking Dogs Films website.
  8. ^ British Film Institute Board of Governors.
  9. ^ "Award-winning film director joins Film London", Film London, 9 August 2004.
  10. ^ "John Akomfrah and Lina Gopaul", Arts at MIT.
  11. ^ "Cinematic Translations: The Work of John Akomfrah - November 27-29", Department of Historical and Cultural Studies, University of Toronto, Scarborough.
  12. ^ "John Akomfrah, A Poet in the Archives", Harvard Film Archive.
  13. ^ a b "John Akomfrah’s new film ‘Vertigo Sea’ at Venice Biennale", Invisible Dust, 7 May 2015.
  14. ^ "John Akomfrah", La Biennale di Venezia.
  15. ^ a b "John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea", Arnolfini.
  16. ^ "John Akomfrah, 22 January – 12 March 2016", Lisson Gallery.
  17. ^ "Full list of New Years' Honours" (PDF). BBC News. 
  18. ^ Alexis Akwagyiram, "John Akomfrah: Little known, much decorated film-maker", BBC News, 20 March 2012.
  19. ^ "How to succeed in the arts – UAL’s high profile honourees share their insights", University of the Arts London, 23 August 2013.
  20. ^ "Goldsmiths to honour leading figures at annual Presentation Ceremonies", News from Goldsmiths, 13 September 2012.
  21. ^ "John Akomfrah OBE (DLit)".
  22. ^ Sashakay Fairclough, "Prominent Black Film Director Awarded Honorary Degree", The Voice, 9 July 2014.
  23. ^ "Luminaries in fashion and film recognised", University of Portsmouth, 9 July 2014.
  24. ^ "John Akomfrah – The Unfinished Conversation" at Autograph ABP.
  25. ^ William Oppon, "The Unfinished Conversation - An Exhibition By John Akomfrah, OBE", Urban Times, 15 January 2014.

External links[edit]