Franklin Cason Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at North Carolina State University. He earned a PhD from the University of Florida and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was a visiting professor at the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University (2019-2020). His research explores aesthetics and pragmatism in African-American cinema. His most recent essay, “Symbiopsychotaxiplasticity: Some Takes on William Greaves,” co-authored with Tsitsi Jaji, was recently published in Cultural Studies in a special issue on Theorizing Production

Ghosts and the Machine: When Documenting Past Black Life Haunts its Present

Franklin Cason Jr.

Volume 3Article 8

Ghosts and the Machine: When Documenting Past Black Life Haunts its Present

Franklin Cason Jr.

Volume 3Article 8 Download

Ghosts and the Machine: When Documenting Past Black Life Haunts its Present

Franklin Cason Jr.
Volume 3/Article 8 Download
Franklin Cason Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at North Carolina State University. He earned a PhD from the University of Florida and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was a visiting professor at the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University (2019-2020). His research explores aesthetics and pragmatism in African-American cinema. His most recent essay, “Symbiopsychotaxiplasticity: Some Takes on William Greaves,” co-authored with Tsitsi Jaji, was recently published in Cultural Studies in a special issue on Theorizing Production

It is a hard thing to live haunted by the ghost of an untrue dream …{1}

– W. E. B. DuBois


I am ready for the phantom, I welcome it.{2}

– John Akomfrah

In 2012, British filmmaker John Akomfrah’s first solo exhibition Hauntologies opened at the Carroll/Fletcher gallery in London. It featured five installations: Allegories of Mourning (2012), Psyche (2012), Peripeteia (2012), At the Graveside of Tarkovsky (2012), and The Call of Mist – Redux (2012). Akomfrah has long been interested in how documentary forms can speak simultaneously from multiple temporalities. Yet, Hauntologies marked a new stage in Akomfrah’s career in which his work is now increasingly seen in galleries and museums. As I turn to Akomfrah’s films and their relationships to the art spaces in which they circulate, it is this “haunting” motif I wish to explore. Explaining the title of his London exhibition, Akomfrah elaborated on a recurring theme throughout his oeuvre. Borrowing Jacques Derrida’s idea of hauntology from Specters of Marx, he feels “gripped by the idea of ghosting, of how the other invades and structures the self.”{3} For Akomfrah, this haunting “alludes to questions of mourning and memory, to subjectivity as a scene of being possessed by the past and what he (Derrida) also called spectrality: the way in which the past haunts the present.”{4}

Hauntologies, like many of Akomfrah’s recent installations, engages the ephemeral traces of ghostlike memories, politically latent histories, and meditations on death. This essay investigates Akomfrah’s need to reinvent the documentary format at particular historical conjunctures, in the context of 1980s British public television and again with his entrance into the gallery worlds of contemporary video installation. I argue that conversations between artists and the spaces in which they exhibit encourages the potential to speculate on the presence of Black subjects (with “Black” here representing an African diasporic designation){5} in context, culminating in an analysis of his documentary installation, Precarity (2017).{5}


Hauntologies: In Search of Lost Time

For many diasporic Black filmmakers caught between what has been lost and the future that modern progress had promised but has never delivered, documentary reflections often look backward, and the past follows as a ghosting in the present, a reappearance of that past. Akomfrah’s 2017 work Precarity offers a meditation on the figure of Buddy Bolden, a cornet player often credited as one of the inventors of jazz, yet left little material trace in sound or image. Precarity is explicit in its references to African American ghost figures moving through time with the impeccable choices of period costumes, jazz, New Orleans’ rural and industrial architecture (including the reoccurring, stylistically exquisite shot of Bolden’s dilapidated home), and the city’s historical and contemporary landscapes. Yet, while the film grounds itself in the textures of New Orleans, the installation remains an African diasporic story relayed by a Ghanaian Brit.

Beginning with his work in the mid-1980s as a founding member of the London-based Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC), Akomfrah’s moving image essays have resisted fixed aesthetic strategies or default modes of exhibition, demonstrating a flexibility of form and format that is shared by the work of his contemporaries Salem Mekuria and Isaac Julien. Each of their works, and their complementary stylistic formats, offer a challenge to think more dynamically about how one recognizes the erasure of diasporic Black history and the range of its reference points, expanding conventional notions of documentary practices outside of technologies of mechanical reproduction. In the context of these artists’ work, I take the following as a given: a document is the transference of a reality to its reproduction, while a documentary is the interpretation of past subjects and documents. For Mekuria, an Ethiopian-born documentarian, the range of formal reference points that documentaries work through is culturally situated. She describes her iconographic interventions as “undoubtedly informed by the fact that painting in triptych is a traditional Ethiopian art form to which I have had much exposure.”{6} For each of these documentary artists, the question lingers: what marks their practice of representing the complex subject of Black lives as a project of documentary, particularly when the reproductions they produce are based on realities that are nowhere to be found?

It is in this context that documentary filmmakers involved with something like the BAFC have often felt compelled to break from the burden of representing the African diaspora as a whole by making self-reflexive, culturally specific, or “relevant” historical connections with their contemporary Black constituency. For artists like John Akomfrah, who choose to work both inside and outside institutional venues such as galleries, television, and theaters, moving between these venues is a strategic, albeit fraught, means to confront history’s erasures of Black subjectivities, and bridge the concept of “hauntology” with documenting Black presence in such spaces. This lack of presence is knotty. Evoking Derrida’s pun on “ontology,” “hauntology” defies the nostalgic “untimely” presentness of ontology, the concept of being.{7} As Derrida puts it:

To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology. Ontology opposes it only in a movement of exorcism. Ontology is a conjuration.{8}

Akomfrah’s work has a history of creating spaces for specters and soothsayers with particularly close relationships between biographies and ghosts. Shifting between documenting lived experience and death (symbolized by the past), a range of filmmakers from Renée Green and Sammy Baloji to Isaac Julien, have produced a body of documentary-infused installations that seem like intrusions. Galleries and especially museums (a specifically haunted physical space I explore later) portray their transitory images of Black lives as undetermined, unreliable, unfinished (or even not properly started), or, put differently, futuristic.

Akomfrah’s portraits of Black subjectivity suggest that a “legacy” is frequently dependent on a present that projects the future, inflating expectations from existing material and ideological conditions. Describing his intention to focus on the historical figure of jazz musician Buddy Bolden, Akomfrah relays that Precarity is “an attempt to try and make sense of what constitutes a legend.”{9} The question of what is instructive here. The late critic Mark Fisher, who also described BAFC’s interests in terms of hauntology, laid out two hauntological paths in which intangible pasts seep into the present. The first being “that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which is still effective as a virtuality (the traumatic ‘compulsion to repeat,’ a structure that repeats, a fatal pattern).” Fisher cites Handsworth Songs (1986) and The Nine Muses (2010) as examples of a past structure lingering in the present through archival footage and audio samples. Fisher identifies the other hauntological path as “that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behavior).”{10} In an essay titled “On The Borderline” published by the photographic Journal TEN.8, Akomfrah imagines that

In the future there will be a Black photographic exhibition on the theme of displacement. It will be about a particular body (later identified as “The Black body”) burdened by an excess of signs; a body literally framed as a figure of torment and bliss, of dangerous knowing and celebrations.{11}

This imaginary exhibition, for Akomfrah, would be conceived to evoke the legacy of past exclusions. Haunted by the Middle Passage and colonization, representations of past Black life are, almost by definition, marked by histories of trauma. Under the sign of such histories, the familiar cliché that you can’t understand the present without knowledge of the past becomes increasingly fraught. Still, this tension has animated Akomfrah’s work from the start.

John Akomfrah in conversation with Colin Prescod in 2010, Lisson Gallery, London.

Founded in Britain in 1982 (the official associations ending in 1998), the Black Audio Film Collective’s multimedia artists—Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, Reece Auguiste, Trevor Mathison, Edward George, Claire Joseph, and (from 1985 onwards) David Lawson—assembled projects that interrogate the conditions of and for Black life and balance the collective accumulation of trauma with the differentiation of diverse, lived experiences that gives shape to how individuals relate to a collective history. From the early politically and contextually responsive audio-visual documentary experiments that they described as the “Slide-Tape-Text”—performances such as Expeditions One: Signs of Empire (1982-84) and Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993)—the collective recognized that from the perspective of a displaced subject, the question of “Who am I?” is only marginally different from “Who was I and why am I here?” (a second or a decade ago). To engage these questions, and to register the gap between them, the collective turned to the essay form of filmmaking, working through “aesthetic clarifications” that reimagine “facts” as narrative forms of exposition in reflexive modes of address.{12} BAFC’s approach to reflection is not just piling figures upon figures, and facts upon facts, but reflecting in half-light and avoiding detached “first-person” uses of expression to tackle complex issues as mere shadows. For Fisher, this mode of production honored, rather than challenged, a fidelity to the past because it leaves the gaps and losses of historical memory intact, as they were found.

from EXPEDITIONS ONE – SIGNS OF EMPIRE (Black Audio Film Collective, UK, 1983).

The form of the relationship between present influences and remembrance of the past is key for Akomfrah. In his view, the past’s relation to the present is “spectral, it’s the way that the present is over-determined by a series of absences, which are not necessarily tactile, but they are active, they have agency.”{13} His interests have both propelled and collided with art institutions that are eager to define their contemporary ethos by opening arenas for documentary artists like the BAFC, and in the process, seeked meaningful engagement with documentary conventions through avant-garde institutional critiques. The industrial oppositions between different contexts that museums and galleries who turn to documentary have sought to embody (particularly as they involve critiques of conventional British television culture) provided Akomfrah and the collective an immediate discursive and material context.

In the 1980s, Britain’s documentary industry surged, challenging the limits BBC and ITV had set on documentary forms and conventions dating back to the 1950s. Even early racially conscious television programs like Ebony (beginning in 1982), produced by the BBC and featuring Black journalist Juliet Alexander, were designed to diversify programming. But there was no such diversification of form, as the show was intended to be made for non-challenging, easy to digest programming. In contrast, Channel 4 was created in 1982 to challenge their restrictive positions by providing broadcast venues for independent production companies and opportunities for regional productions.{14} Collectives like BAFC and the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop found homes for their work on Channel 4 as a result of the station’s outreach to increasingly diverse audiences with new, specific issues, including representational demands to address political and personal marginalization in the U.K. For example, BAFC’s experimental, reflexive documentary Handsworth Songs (1986), which engages race riots in London and Birmingham’s Handsworth district, was first broadcast on Channel 4 and stands in sharp contrast to Police, the BBC’s 1982 utterly conventional documentary series about the Thames Valley Police.

But there is something intriguing about BAFC and Akomrah’s vacillation between broadcast documentary forums and their art exhibitions and installations, both of which blur the lines and interrupt the respective idiosyncrasies of the competing frameworks. Their refusal to dichotomize these sites is apparent from early performances like Expeditions One: Signs of Empire to their installations at exhibitions hosted by the Whitechapel Gallery in London beginning in 1983 and Akomfrah’s later solo installations, which included Precarity. Their tracking back and forth does not simply reflect a desire to exhibit their inventions and interventions wherever they please. Rather, as Akomfrah has made clear, being site agnostic made possible the increased circulation of their work to meet rising demand for African diasporic artistic work in general. Akomfrah recalls that “very few of the early single-screen BAFC works stayed in one space, whether I wanted them to or not. That wasn’t a choice we were making. That had a lot to do with the dearth, as well, of ‘black stuff,’ to put it crudely.”{15} For members of BAFC, that fluidity had less to do with site specificity and more to do with the increased mobility it allowed.

HANDSWORTH SONGS (Black Audio Film Collective, UK, 1986).

The incorporation of specific expectations of documentary practice, including the gathering, re-presenting, and exhibiting of documents, into museum works is a testament to Akomfrah’s agility because it requires more than just a leap of faith. It also requires the ability to master institutional expectations. As a broadcast documentary filmmaker in Britain, Akomfrah had to navigate expectations about what cultural documentary is and what it should do that were established decades earlier. Producer John Grierson and filmmaker Basil Wright’s 1930s and ’40s documentaries on social conditions in the U.K. set certain standards and expectations for progressive non-fiction films. Even as late as Grierson’s 1953 production, the drama/travelogue Man of Africa, one can find an unmistakably exotic and colonial approach to representing Black lives. Tom Rice situates Grierson within the colonial purview in Britain at the time: “John Grierson argued that Man of Africa ‘attempts to enter into the mind and spirit of the negro people as normal beings, subject to the ordinary problems of the condition humaine.’” For Rice, he complicity “encourages its predominantly non-African audience to identify and empathise with the Africans (sic) on screen.”{16} This approach was anathema to Akomfrah, but the early years of Channel 4 allowed enough space to take another route. In contrast, many Black documentarians working in and out of institutionalized art scenes had to navigate a more complex set of responsibilities and expectations to reflect Black life.


Ghosts in the Machines: The Art-Industrial Complex

Though it may be playing out in a different form, gallery and museum spaces at large have shared public television’s (like the BBC) identity crisis.{17} One of the problems with many gallery spaces is that they are aware of their lack of diversity yet fail to correct for it.

Daniel Trilling, writing about Akomfrah’s exhibition at the British Film Institute’s gallery in London in 2010, critically notes that “unlike in the 1980s, Britain’s diversity is now widely celebrated, to the extent that it has become a brand to be traded on.”{18} The fact that white-identifying administrators and curators, who still dominate the field, recognize this problem and increasingly believe that the mission of galleries is to diversify both the artists whose work they show and the audiences in their spaces is captured in The British Museum’s “Equality and Diversity Policy.” The statement, typical of a wider institutional perspective, states that the museum “is wholly committed to the principles of equality and diversity and the benefits of these both for visitors to the British Museum as well as for those who work there.”{19} Though the statement is rather banal in and of itself, it is telling that it needed to be formulated at all. The easiest path towards this goal of diversity is simply to exhibit a more diverse array of artists, something that has occurred in the U.S. and the U.K. over the past five years. But that does not solve the issue of broadening audiences. Despite such expressions of altruism, art institutions tend to misunderstand that changing whose work is exhibited doesn’t necessarily change who comes to view it. This troubled framework arises wherever Black experience is prioritized as an aesthetic but not as an active agent of cultural production. Ghostlike, Black subjectivity haunts, in the sense of present absence, in the art institutions whose missions only highlight the specter of the past exclusions without fully addressing the absences surrounding the present.

Tracking the shift in exhibition venues as a way of tracking changes in modes of address only confirms the limits of both broadcast and installation settings to present/reveal Black experience as present/not present. The past, unfortunately, does not always adequately prepare us for the future. Lindiwe Dovey considers how difficult it is to situate the work of politically inclined British filmmakers like Akomfrah and Isaac Julien, a founding member of Sankofa Film and Video Collective, in a contemporary art context. Akomfrah’s videos and Julien’s series of large-scale installations share aspects of formal and political confrontations, especially works including Fantôme Creole (2005), Western Union: Small Boats (2007) and Ten Thousand Waves (2010). Dovey wonders “what are we to make of the fact that they are expressing themselves through the rather esoteric and inaccessible form of installation art?”{20}

Fantôme Créole offers an evocative triptych set in rural landscapes and urban Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso and home of the FESPACO Film Festival, the premier venue for continental and diasporic African cinema. In Fantôme Creole, phantoms lie in the city’s ruins alongside architectural, archival, and choreographed explorations. Western Union: Small Boats elaborates on many of Fantôme Creole’s political and visual concerns, with the use of projected movements and dance to revisit the traumas of migration and meaningful, immersive, relationships to water. Ten Thousand Waves’ nine-screen installation is both a strategic, politically grounded statement as well as an experientially fragmented aesthetic challenge. For Dovey, it seems that the sites of exhibition for these thematically connected works overshadows the spatialized modes of elliptical, dialectical, and fragmented telling that those sites make possible. For Julien, multi-channel installations make possible the mobile spectator, a way of engaging works that de-emphasizes a set position from which to watch his videos and a set order in which to do it. He says that:

In works like Fantôme Creole, Western Union: Small Boats and Ten Thousand Waves, I want to address these issues, through the use of multi- screen projections. This is not about the question of number of screens—four screens, five screens, and now nine screens in Ten Thousand Waves—but about breaking away from the normative habits we have in the exhibition of, and also the viewing of, moving images.{21}

Both Akomfrah and Julien’s meditations on migration extend a confrontation between historical reflection and trauma into the space of viewership. For Dovey, those meditations remain indigestible, though it remains clear if that is a problem or a potential. And if it is a problem, does fault lay with the video makers, or with the institutions that exhibit their work?

As a form of address to these questions, Akomfrah’s speaks about his imaginary exhibition, On The Borderline:

There are things which should not be spoken of lightly and one is that displacement is about empowering. It wants to arm itself with the ability to make tangible that which elided expression in the earlier debates on black representation. And in that sense it is the “worlding” of a particular form of awakening in which the body placed under duress by willingness to construct it anew yields other potentials but in doing so also gives rise to stress. It is through this putting into flight such a monstrous double that will come to recognize the works in displacement. Welcome to the exhibition.{22}

The move into gallery spaces may be risky given the perceived politics of elitism that so frequently bracket work exhibited inside them. As Akomfrah explains, “there is a spatial challenge, how one houses a set of questions, how one migrates a practice which has been single-screen based and showed in one particular platform, such as film and television, into the gallery space in its discursivity.”{23} Similarly, Isaac Julien suggests that “the gallery rather than the cinema, has become an important space for interventions that re-view the differing cultural, political and aesthetic perspectives that make up ‘moving image’ culture from around the world.”{24}

Akomfrah and Julien’s gallery work serves as a bridge between hauntology and the documentation of traumatic histories, particularly slavery. Such trauma, not always visibly present, marks the daily life of African diasporic experiences. But these films should not be seen as a refusal to be truthful so much as an invitation to understand truth through newly expansive cinematic forms. How can gallery installations possibly do such histories justice, to make visible anything outside locations generally perceived as elite (museums have been previously thought of as semi-private spaces, while galleries have prided themselves as being self-contained public spaces)?{25} Inside or outside, neither space is likely to definitively reveal trauma. The question Du Bois posed over a century ago, “how does it feel to be a problem,” is in and of itself a documentary issue, a rhetorical question.{26} As Elisabeth Loevlie reflects on Toni Morrison’s characterization of trauma in Beloved, the dilemma lies in “how to remember what the present cannot bear? How to live on when every moment is caught up in the unspeakable shame, pain and inhumanity of the past?”{27}


Precarities — Of Mournings and Memories

An attraction to that which cannot be erased or forgotten, romanticized or reconciled returns again and again in Akomfrah’s videos, writing, and interviews. Diasporic ghosts are woven into decolonized subjects who are “two warring ideals in one dark body,” as W. E. B. Du Bois articulated in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. In “What Is Hauntology?,” Fisher reads the structure of warring ideals through BAFC’s documentary Handsworth Songs, arguing that the film “can be read as a study of hauntology, of the specter of race itself (an effective virtuality if ever there was one), an account of how the traumas of migration (forced and otherwise) play themselves out over generations, but also about the possibilities of rebellion and escape.”{28} Fisher could have extended his analysis to the meditations on loss that permeate Akomfrah’s The Call of  the Mist (Redux) (2012, single-channel video) which was at least in part, a meditation on the death of his mother; At the Graveside of Tarkovsky (2012, mixed medium installation, audio with single-channel video); Psyche (2012, a three-channel video installation) and The Genome Chronicles (2008, three-channel video installation); and finally Precarity.

Upon entering the three-channel installation space it is the immediate beauty of the imagery and audio in Precarity—the way figures move, the tableaux vivants, the sound of shallow water washing over rocks—that pulls the viewer in. The frame, as a material, compositional, and conceptual question, is one of Akomfrah’s driving aesthetic challenges. As he puts it, “I’m trying to make figures and subjects walk into a frame, and rendering both of them and the frame complex through the process in which they do that.”{29} The installation juxtaposes fragments—images from different perspectives and different frame sizes (longshots, extreme long-shots, and close-ups), without any explicit narrative justification for their differences. In keeping with Akomfrah’s recurring interest in simultaneously celebrating the epic stature of the image while troubling the boundaries between the screen and the social space outside it, his formal strategy here points to an insistence that viewers extend figures, subjects, and indeed, their precarity, outside the boundaries of the three channels of images.

The barely-there narrative of Precarity takes on epic proportions with a three-channel triptych format recalling one of the Western art tradition’s religious frames (or Mekuria’s culturally specific evocations of Ethiopian Orthodox religious iconography). Precarity, once again, approaches African-American history as an essential diasporic location, with Seven Songs for Malcom X (1993) and Dr Martin Luthor King: Days of Hope (1997), as important precursors. Ostensibly, his film is a biopic of the ethereal New Orleans cornet player Charles “Buddy” Bolden. Bolden was eventually admitted to the State Insane Asylum in Jackson, Louisiana in 1907, and left only one extant photograph of himself. Presented with a triptych format, this figure walks in and out like a ghost, through memories, images, and sounds as they vanish and reappear. Taking on the guise of a time traveling documentarian, Akomfrah sifts through multiple time periods using archival photographs, music, landscape cinematography, and found footage—an archive of shared histories. This film’s reflection through archival material, which haunts the film’s present (the viewer’s here and now), produces an expansive echo. Many of the archival images are re-photographed through flowing water, which reflects and refracts the light across its surface. This recurrent visual trope is evocative of historian Elliott J. Gorn’s writing: “Past, present and future flowed into each other, as ancient biblical acts of redemption offered paradigms for the future.”{30} Thus, reflecting on the future, the home of historical subjects, ghostlore tells stories from positions of what Claire M. Holdsworth calls “pluralized hauntologies … numerous images and sources, as opposed to the singularity of linear narrative and depiction.”{31}

The film is filled with visual evocations of absence, permeated by superimpositions and composited images which feature wandering ghosts and seem to lack diegetic sound. This lack of presence is the essence of Bolden’s legend: jazz performances without audio, movements without sounds, sound without recordings. But, listen closely and the slight sound of a cornet playing emerges in the background. Archival photos of unnamed Black subjects drowning in shallow water is coupled with a washing sound that comes in and out over the course of the film. Nora Alter notes Akomfrah’s “indirect” motivic use of water (especially images of streams and the sea) functioning metaphorically and metonymically: “As a metonym the sea stands prosaically as a vast zone of human movement, a crossroad of migrations between territories. As a metaphor it operates as a reservoir of memory, a place where stories of the past, present and future are suspended and preserved.”{32} The abundance of tracking shots, shifts in lens focus and image size, voiceovers, and various texts that keep biographic stasis at bay underlie Akomfrah’s self-reflexive refusal to fetishize Bolden or the music by providing viewers with immediate access to them. The photos drift beneath the panning camera; unnamed figures from the past, flowers, a top hat, lace, and a cornet rendered silent appear in conjunction with the stills. Everything is background, historical recreations of lost records. The narrative re-creations are meticulously designed costume dramas and period pieces, exemplified by shots of two turn-of-the-century women who stand silently. Costume dramas “offer this idea, this fiction, that one can have unmediated access to the past,” yet Akomfrah’s frequent use of juxtapositions maintain the sense of distance and loss.{33} The triptych juxtaposes tableaux vivants, locations, scenes, figures, and found footage, simultaneously combining facts and fictionalizations. Factories, sharecroppers, urban ruins, and contemplative close-ups of Bolden act as different signifiers in groups of images than they would alone. These juxtapositions function like a montage of remembering—documentary biopics are by nature narratives of documentation, recovery.

from PRECARITY (Akomfrah, USA/USA, 2017). © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy of Lisson Gallery.

Ironically, the film’s slow methodical movements seem to belie the frenzy associated with New Orleans’s jazz improvisation. The tracking shots emphasize slow movements, producing a quietness which accentuates the form and intimacy of the film. Compositional symmetries between the triptych images ensure this intimacy remains precarious, as the self-reflexive format creates complex combinations of images that pull the viewer out of moments of identification. The slowness of the figures’ movements also contribute to the tableaux vivants appearance. The actor portraying Bolden moves so slowly and silently that he appears to be standing still. At one point, he is shown from three different angles in each of the three screens, and in each he is situated in different environments. The image on the right shows him looking off frame with an industrial site behind him; the center image places his silhouette in the center, looking out into a colorful, cloud-filled sky; in the left image, he looks off to the left with the Greater New Orleans Bridge as the backdrop. The images, I suggest, are meant to be read as simultaneous, rather than images representing different locations marking different days. Though the backgrounds seem distant, they nevertheless overwhelm the silhouetted figure. The silhouetted center image of a solitary figure facing away from camera offers up a surrogate viewer, thematizing the act of witness. It is a recurring motif for Akomfrah, appearing as well in Digitopia (1998), Mnemosyne (2010), Vertigo Sea (2015), and Purple (2018). It is the placement of this figure in the midst of multiple screens that provides the perspective for the viewer as a witness of the witness, disengaging the more conventional empathetic identification so often found in documentaries that frame cross cultural representation, and that Salman Rushdie famously criticized Handsworth Songs for eliding three decades prior.

For over a decade, Akomfrah has used the triptych (and diptych) to interrupt recovery by keeping the broken pieces fragmented. These interruptions cut straight to the heart of documentary film practice, reconstructing materials and constructing anew imagined documents to bring his subjects back to life. Combining representations of Bolden from different periods of his life (the rare photograph, Bolden with the bowler hat, and Bolden in the asylum wearing a straitjacket) in the same triptych offers up the image of appearance, reappearance, and disappearance all at once.

The diasporic installations by Akomfrah use reappearance to predict a future that by nature remains unseen, incomplete, and never arrives. Derrida writes:

In general, I try and distinguish between what one calls the Future and “l’avenir” (the ‘to come’). The future is that which – tomorrow, later, next century – will be. There is a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So, if there is a real future, beyond the other known future, it is l’avenir in that it is the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival.{34}

It is this constantly unpredictable disappearance of present moments (the never arriving “now”) that makes the remnants of presence (the “something’s still here”) all the more difficult to see. Where is it? Where was it? What will it be? Each are essential questions for documentarians. Akomfrah persists in questioning history’s claim to a past that seemingly erases the present by forgetting the future. With Precarity, Akomfrah activates the displacements of the installation space to undo simple stories by heralding the haunting, there/not there, present/reappearing relevance for contemporary Black lives to come to light. If Black subjectivity remains to be seen, the displacement of any ghosts in the image-making machines—those screens that broadcast or project fantasies of black presence—will be obligated to reinterpret how Black life remains a haunted subjectivity. For Akomfrah, the cross-pollinations of cross-platforms and spaces help distinguish the subjectivities of Black life from an undetermined, hauntological “brand to be traded on” called Black subjects. But ghosts never really disappear.



Title Video: Precarity (Akomfrah, UK/USA, 2017).

{1} W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: Bantam Dell, 1989). This is part of his discussion of the early, promising racial developments and dynamics in a utopic Atlanta.
{2} Bárbara Rodriguez Muñoz, “Interview with John Akomfrah on Hauntologies,” in John Akomfrah: Hauntologies (London: Carroll/Fletcher, 2012), 3–4. Exhibition catalogue
{3} Ibid.
{4} Ibid.
{5} Exemplified by the “Black” in the Black Audio Film Collective.
{6} Salem Mekuria, “Representation and Self-Representation: My Take,” Feminist Africa 16 (2012): 14.
{7} Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International (New York: Routledge, 2012).
{8} Ibid.
{9} See Akomfrah’s interview for the Precarity exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina.
{10} Mark Fisher, “What Is Hauntology?,” Film Quarterly 66, no. 1 (2012): 19.
{11} John Akomfrah in Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 198.
{12} John Akomfrah, et al. John Akomfrah: signs of empire (New York: New Museum, 2018). 110-111. Exhibition catalogue.
{13} Muñoz, Hauntologies, 3.
{14} Dorothy Hobson, Channel 4: The Early Years and the Jeremy Isaacs Legacy (London: IB Tauris, 2007).
{15} Ashley Clark. “We Will Be Fine. We Will Absolutely Be Fine: A Conversation with Artist and Filmmaker John Akomfrah,” Filmmaker Magazine, July 18, 2016.
{16} John Grierson as quoted by Tom Rice in “Man of Africa,” Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire, Accessed June 11, 2019. (2009).
{17} Chitra Ramaswamy, “Whoever Heard of a Black Artist? Britain’s Hidden Art History Review—a Powerful Picture of Whitewashing,” Guardian, Guardian News and Media, July 30, 2018.
{18} Daniel Trilling, “John AkomfrahFrieze, November 1, 2009.
{19}Equality and Diversity Policy”, The British Museum.
{20} Lindiwe Dovey, “Fidelity, Simultaneity, and the ‘Remaking’ of Adaptation Studies” in Pascal Nicklas and Oliver Lindner, eds., Adaptation and Cultural Appropriation: Literature, Film, and the Arts (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 174.
{21} Rania Gaafar and Martin Schulz, eds. Technology and Desire: The Transgressive Art of Moving Images (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2014), 270.
{22} Eshun and Sagar, Ghosts of Songs, 199.
{23} Muñoz, Hauntologies, 5.
{24} Gaafar and Schulz, Technology and Desire.
{25} Suzanne Macleod, Reshaping Museum Space (New York: Routledge, 2005), 170.
{26} Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk, 1.
{27} Elisabeth Loevlie, “Faith in the Ghosts of Literature. Poetic Hauntology in Derrida, Blanchot and Morrison’s Beloved,” Religions 4, no. 3 (2013): 345.
{28} Fisher, “What is Hauntology?”, 24.
{29} Eshun and Sagar, Ghosts of Songs, 41.
{30} Elliott J Gorn, “Black Spirits: The Ghostlore of Afro-American Slaves,” American Quarterly 36, no. 4 (1984): 554.
{31} Claire M Holdsworth, “Hauntologies: The Ghost, Voice and the Gallery,” Close-up (April 2013).
{32} Nora Alter, “Movements: Netaphors and Metonymies in the Work of John Akomfrah,” in Emma Gifford-Mead and Ruth Hogan, eds., John Akomfrah (Lisson Gallery, 2016), 6. Exhibition Catalogue.
{33} Muñoz, Hauntologies, 8.
{34} Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, Derrida: Screenplay and Essays on the Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), 52-53.