The archive has been the space of intervention from the beginning. One of the few spaces, reservoirs of memory, for diasporic subjects is the archive.
John Akomfrah (2014)
Benjamin E.I. Lubbock
Edited by Maria Elena Carpintero Torres-Quevedo and Rianna Walcott
Art by Maïa Walcott https://maiawalcott98.wixsite.com/mysite
Memory and the moving image are John Akomfrah’s materials. In The Unfinished Conversation, a three-screen video installation, his subject matter is the formation of identity, which, for individuals struggling to define themselves in their social contexts, is a matter of urgency. It is not easy to explain how identities are created, and there are few who have considered the matter in greater depth than Stuart Hall, around whom the film revolves. Born in Jamaica before immigrating to Oxford, Hall became editor-in-chief of the New Left Review and a founding figure of the New Left movement. He was an activist, regularly televised for his analyses of media reports, and co-authored seminal texts such as The Popular Arts (1964), which advanced the claim that film, media and pop culture should be taken seriously as objects of study. But what he was arguably most renowned for were his theories of identity: “Identity is formed at the intersection between the political and the personal” (Hall, 2013).
This is the argument made by Hall, and it is this intersection of identity that Akomfrah lays bare across three screens. The audience is shown clips of Hall in simultaneity with footage of the Vietnam War and of the Selma to Montgomery march. Miles Davis accompanies the recordings of Hall, alongside extracts from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan. Akomfrah states that: “The primary colours of sound, text, archive television, radio recordings, and photographs mix elegantly and in such a way as to create a more complex palette” (2017). The colours Akomfrah uses paint a vivid portrait of Stuart Hall whom, if he was unknown before, one feels intimately familiar with by the end. It is certainly elegant but is also at times a sensory overload. In this respect, the film is reflective, even mimetic of Hall’s beliefs concerning identity formation, by enacting the political and the personal through the lens of Hall’s life.
So why should The Unfinished Conversation be included in the curriculum and in what respect? Due to the uncertainty of its medium – whether it can be considered ‘art’ or film – the piece could be relevant to a spectrum of subjects. In the study of culture, it could be used as an introduction to Hall, who, recognised as “a key architect of Cultural Studies” (2013), became the director for the Centre of Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Edinburgh. In Art History, it could be discussed in courses examining the ways in which artists express their experiences of diaspora and immigration, Akomfrah himself having been born in Ghana, and raised in England from the age of four. In the study of film theory and, indeed, film-making, Unfinished is an incredible example of montage, for which Akomfrah has an acute sense. His harmonising of unrelated and even conflicting images to create something entirely new is almost musical, orchestral in the way myriads occur across the triptych display.
As a Creative Writing graduate, I believe in the practice of drawing new ways of presenting narratives from film. Unfinished is no exception. The narrative is complex without being complicated, experimental while remaining comprehensible. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Akomfrah adapted the piece into a single-screen feature-length called The Stuart Hall Project, making it accessible to those who can’t see the installation. Here, the chronology of the film is chaptered by the discography of Miles Davis, whom Hall is heard to say at the beginning “put his finger on my soul”.
Works such as The Unfinished Conversation are integral, as works with which black students and those of immigrant families can identify, and who deserve to see themselves reflected and represented in a white-washed canon. As a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered man, I cannot say that I have ever suffered this lack of representation in the classroom, but have always been aware of an absence, a sense that what I was learning was incomplete. It was not until after university, when I began self-study, that I discovered John Akomfrah and Stuart Hall. And, while this piece does not speak of my personal experience, that is all the more reason to be exposed to it. Art can be a means of connecting those of otherwise disparate backgrounds; an empathetic bridge between communities, through which we can experience a perspective otherwise unknown to us. It is in this way that, by watching Unfinished and works like it, I start to feel an understanding of this perspective.
The Unfinished Conversation is a poem, three poems performed all at once, which coalesce and intertwine, then diverge. The poems are about identity, described by Hall as “an endless, ever-unfinished conversation” (1989). Akomfrah continues Hall’s conversation; he summons him into our contextual epoch by showing archival footage of the Jamaica in which Hall was raised, alongside raw footage of modern Jamaica. Though well-known in certain circles, Akomfrah re-calls Hall into the public consciousness in a time when racial tensions continue to surmount internationally. Because of this, works such as Akomfrah’s and voices such as Hall’s are needed now, in the mainstream as well as in academia. I couldn’t end without invoking this speech, given by Hall for “the young black people of this society who have created in their myriad art forms […] a new culture, a culture which astonishes, astonishes now the eyes of young white people in this society, which is a mark, a sign, that they are the people of the future” (1991).
The Unfinished Conversation is available to see in the tank of Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building. Or The Stuart Hall Project can be found on BFI Player.
Akomfrah, John. The Stuart Hall Project, 2013. BFI. John Akomfrah / Smoking Dogs Films. https://player.bfi.org.uk/subscription/film/watch-the-stuart-hall-project-2013-online
Akomfrah, John. The Unfinished Conversation, 2012. Tate. John Akomfrah / Smoking Dogs Films.
About the author
Benjamin E.I. Lubbock is a graduate of the University of East Anglia, having studied Literature with Creative Writing. For as long as he has been able to hold a pen, he has written poetry and prose exploring identity and spirituality, and how each come to be formed in individuals.