John Akomfrah on Stuart Hall: ‘When I first read it I thought it was white’ | Art and design


JTwo years before his death in 2014, Stuart Hall, cultural theorist, political activist and founding editor of the radical journal New Left Review, collaborated with artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah on The Unfinished Conversation. The extraordinary cinematic art installation, projected onto a triptych of screens, attempted to evoke and translate Hall’s life and ideas up until the Cultural Revolution of 1968. Akomfrah adopts an approach that has become his signature , mixing voice-over and music, newly shot footage and television and film archives. On its 10th anniversary, it was remounted at the Midlands Arts Center as part of the Birmingham 2022 festival.

Even on a Zoom call, Akomfrah is bright; he is an unpretentious intellectual and his blue French workman’s jacket looks lived in. Behind him, cupboards, each drawer of which is identified by a single photo. More artwork and accessories are propped up on the walls. Laughter foreshadows all the answers to my questions, especially the most mischievous. I begin by asking what attracted him to Hall.

“That was Stuart’s questioning of blackness in his early 1970s writing,” he says. “His evolution in this country, his many transformations. When I first read it, I thought it was blank. It wasn’t until I saw this campaign against racism on the media show he did with Maggie Steed in 1979, It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum, I realized: Oh, the brother is black! Premonitory and excoriating, It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum revealed how the overt racism of British TV comedy and light entertainment shows was also aired more subtly in current affairs programmes.

“What I wouldn’t understand until later was that Stuart himself had a lot of struggles and conflicts and conversations about this issue of darkness,” Akomfrah continues. “It wasn’t obvious to him either.” When Hall arrived in Britain in 1951 on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, he found that white Britons did not distinguish between pioneering Caribbean migrant classes; he was seen as another annoying black man and faced even greater hostility when he married Catherine, a white woman.

A poignant portrait… Akomfrah’s installation The Unfinished Conversation. Photography: Toni Hafkenscheid [email protected]/Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

With its evocative use of Miles Davis music and archival footage marking the defining moments of Hall’s political activism – the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) protests, US attack helicopters firing into the rainforest of Vietnam, Russian tanks on the streets of Hungary, Hall addressing crowds and protesters – I see the Akomfrah triptych as a poignant portrait of Hall’s personal and public life. Akomfrah agrees, most of the time.

“His central vanity, which emerged from discussions with Stuart over many months, was that identities are constructed, at this crossroads of the historical, the imaginary and the psychic. Stuart was a perfect illustration of this; the question of identity had been a river that flowed through his own life. In the film, Hall describes himself as three shades darker than his family and how he felt like an outsider in a colonial society that promoted whiteness and its light-skinned brunette approximation. “But a portrait by itself was not enough,” says Akomfrah. “We also had to delve into the history of the last century to make sense of the vicissitudes of race and the fortunes of the New Left.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, a wide range of left-wing activists, student radicals, and intellectuals came together as the New Left; it was a movement opposed to colonialism, imperialism and orthodox communism, and its revolutionary challenge to find a “third way” culminated in 1968 in mass protests in Western Europe and North America. Akomfrah, who remains impressed with the New Left Review, disputes the idea that its influence has diminished. “There was a time when people talked about the direction of the new lefta social democratic anti-imperialism – as if it were an all-white and European affair, even if we were mixed up in racial and cultural aspects from the beginning,” he says. “And that’s why in The Unfinished Conversation, I revisited the Suez and Vietnam crises.”

Akomfrah’s sense of common purpose with the New Left was expressed in his early films, such as Handsworth Songs, made in 1986 with the Black Audio Film Collective, illuminating the hostility directed against black people in Britain. His sympathies still lie with the New Left. “Even today, if you read the New Left Review, which reflects on the current crisis in Ukraine, you will see that it has always been good at identifying how the immediate past impacts on the present. So where people see the demise of the New Left, I see longevity.

Stuart Hall.
“I think he is haunted by questions of complicity”… Stuart Hall. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

Passing from the profane to the sacred, I suggest that the triptych form, exemplified in the history of art in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, has a devotional quality. Akomfrah accepts the point but argues that his triptyque offers, “both in its visual and musical form, a way of making discursiveness manifest and visible. Focus on a figure [Hall], an era, a history, a political movement and a changing identity; the triptych could survey and embody this panorama.

In an early scene, underlined by nostalgic 1950s jazz and Hall’s silky smooth voice-over offering social observations, on the center screen is Super 8 video footage of an unidentified person relaxing in a hammock swinging on a Caribbean porch. There are two more screens, one on either side: one shows a colorful, possibly colorized photo of elegant colonial-era cars in Kingston, Jamaica, with the Blue Mountains in the background; the other depicts commuters, captured in black and white BBC archival footage, exiting London trains. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the voiceover gives way to the sound of thunder announcing a coming storm. What, I ask Akomfrah, governed the alignment of the images?

“I wanted to get a good story on the center screen and then find counterparts for the left and right panels. It is a portrait of a life in transition as well as a mirror of the historical transformations that have a certain relationship with this life. I try to suggest spaces in which a set of elective affinities have overlapped and taken place. There is warmth and candor in Hall’s testimony, but I wonder if Akomfrah hesitated to highlight Hall’s mother and the nature of Jamaica’s caste system. Colonial Jamaica detrimentally relegated the majority black population to the footsteps of society, so that, as journalist and scholar Vivian Durham recounts, “it was every black man’s ambition to be white.”

At one point, Hall recalled his mother complaining about “awful black people spoiling Britain with their presence; they should be chased from the pier with a big broom”. More than snobbery, perhaps there is self-hatred, I ask Akomfrah. “The question of a caste system or pigmentocracy is central to the formation of Jamaica and Stuart. I included it because it seemed to say something quite profound about his life.

The unfinished conversation.
It was essential that we not only bring the ideas, but also the appearance of the ideas into the present… The unfinished conversation. Photography: Courtesy of Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

Hall was critical of his mother’s snobbery and prejudice. “And the tragic story of his sister being forbidden by her mother to marry a doctor because he was too dark-skinned…Stuart revisited that over and over again, to the point that it was almost like a primal scene. It is his own role that haunts him. He tells you the story but at one point you think: mate, what did you do? I think he is haunted by questions of complicity.

Like many artists, Akomfrah still finds fault with his work, but 10 years later he is still content with the look of the triptych. “We went into the BBC archives and tried to transfer whatever was useful from the original material into something pristine and user-friendly. It was important that we free the archival material from the global tyranny of degradation, because it comes with a set of assumptions. “Oh, it’s old, from the past, it looks shitty, and therefore worthless.” It was essential that we not only bring the ideas, but also the aspect of the ideas into the present. »

Akomfrah is glad Hall got to see The Unfinished Conversation before his death in 2014 and remembers how poignant it was. “We started working together from the start; he was a visible and invisible guest, if you will. He seemed moved by The Unfinished Conversation… which was important to me. But in the end, it’s kind of a failure,” he says ironically, “since the project was to try to keep him alive. Ten years later, does Akomfrah feel that his work has resonance today? “This was done before the explosion of Black Lives Matter, all this becoming blackness as a kind of public spectacle of protest and affirmation that we experienced. There is a prophetic echo of these themes in The Unfinished Conversation It’s prescient and timely.

When I tell Akomfrah the title of my next memoir, I’m Black So You Don’t Have to Be, he nods and laughs heartily, acknowledging her irony. “I hear you. This is one of the central conversations about blackness. What do you let go of and what do you let define you? None of us will ever claim to have reached a moment of transcendence, where we escaped the freedoms and tyrannies of darkness. And I’m not saying that out of pride because no one wants to hold on to shit that causes you grief. It ain’t easy to be black.

Finally, it comes back to my previous question about devotion. “I don’t think it’s possible to talk about the question of darkness without also touching, in a certain way, on the space of the spiritual. The Unfinished Conversation has this spiritual quality or canticle. I say amen to that.

John Akomfrah: The Unfinished Conversation, 2012, is at the Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham, until June 26.

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