Art

John Akomfrah to represent Britain at Venice Biennale | John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah to represent Britain at Venice Biennale | John Akomfrah

The artist and film-maker John Akomfrah will represent the UK at the Venice Biennale in 2024, the British Council has announced.

Akomfrah, who was honoured with a knighthood in the 2023 honours listis known for his art films and multiscreen video installations exploring issues such as racial injustice, diasporic identities, migration and climate breakdown. Next year the Ghanaian-born artist’s work will fill the British pavilion at Venice from April until November.

Akomfrah, 65, initially came to prominence in the early 1980s as a founder of the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC), one of the first groups to challenge how the black British community were represented on screen and in the media. The BAFC’s first film, Handsworth Songs, explored the events around the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a combination of archive footage, still photos, newly shot material and newsreel.

Akomfrah’s other work includes the three-screen installation The Unfinished Conversation (2012), a portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s life and work; Mnemosyne (2010), which exposed the economic hardships and casual racism faced by migrants in the UK; Vertigo Sea (2015), a three-screen installation that focused on the disorder and cruelty of the whaling industry and juxtaposed it with scenes of generations of migrants making epic ocean crossings in search of a better life; and Purple (2017), his largest film installation to date, which addressed the climate crisis.

He has previously told the Guardian that moving to the UK aged four has bestowed him with a “moral obligation” to make works that wade into the debate around migration and offset the “rhetoric of contagion” used by many to describe the flow of refugees into Europe.

In 2017 the artist won the Artes Mundi prize, the UK’s biggest award for international art. He has also previously participated in 2019’s Venice Biennale with his piece Four Nocturnes – which was commissioned for the inaugural Ghana pavilion and reflected the complex, intertwined relationship between humanity’s destruction of the natural world and destruction of the self.

a still from John Akomfrah’s Four Nocturnes, 2019.
A still from John Akomfrah’s Four Nocturnes, 2019. Photograph: Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

Accepting the commission from the British Council, Akomfrah said it was a “huge privilege and honour” to be asked to represent the UK at the international art exhibition. “It is without doubt one of the most exciting opportunities that an artist can be presented with,” he said.

“I see this invitation as recognition of and a platform for all those I have collaborated with over the decades, and who continue to make my work possible. I’m grateful to be given a moment to explore the complex history and significance of this institution and the nation it represents, as well as its architectural home in Venice – with all the stories it has told and will continue to.”

The British Council has been responsible for the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale since 1937. Artists including recent Golden Lion winner Sonia BoyceTracey Emin, Phyllida Barlow and Steve McQueen have all represented the UK in the past.

Skinder Hundal, global director of arts at the British Council and commissioner of the British pavilion, said: “With a career spanning four decades, the judges felt that Akomfrah had made a very significant contribution to the UK and international contemporary art scene. John’s inspiring style and narrative has continuously evolved, revealing key ideas and questions about the world we inhabit.

“The quality and contextual depth of his artistry never fails to inspire deep reflection and awe. For the British Council to have such a significant British-Ghanaian artist in Venice is an exhilarating moment.”

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