A film about revolution, politics, and culture, this portrait of the influential Jamaican-born intellectual Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014) reflects on his work as a founding figure of the New Left and architect of the field of cultural studies.
Film director and artist John Akomfrah combines extensive archival imagery, culled from over 100 hours of Hall’s wide-ranging media appearances, with footage of the social and political upheavals through which he lived. The key domestic and international historical events featured (including West Indian migration to the UK, the Suez Crisis, the Hungarian Uprising, the birth of youth counterculture, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War) are addressed in broadly chronological fashion, set against Hall’s mixed experiences of ‘Britishness’ as a post-war immigrant.
The film uses the melancholy-suffused music of Miles Davis as its soundtrack (‘When I was 18 or 19,’ says Hall early in the film, ‘Miles Davis put his finger on my soul’). Davis’s music, save for an early blast of 1968’s ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro’, is also structured in chronological order, a neat by-product of which is to map the trumpeter’s development as a musician in step with international events.
Akomfrah has developed an innovative and deeply intuitive use of archival montage to investigate memory, post-colonialism, temporality and aesthetics, often exploring the experiences of migrant diasporas globally and involving research into untold stories, lost and hidden histories. In this film he uses the diverse stream of Hall’s media appearances and voiceovers to play against the chronological structure, opening up a space for reflection beyond the confines of contemporaneous commentary.
Akomfrah’s celebrated three-screen gallery work The Unfinished Conversation, first shown at the Liverpool Biennial in 2012 and at Tate Britain in 2013, and now part of Tate’s collection, is a prequel to this film, released while Akomfrah was still working on The Stuart Hall Project.
Akomfrah was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982, alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, with whom he still collaborates today. Their first film, Handsworth Songs (1986), explored the events surrounding the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a charged combination of archive footage, still photos and newsreel. The film won several international prizes and established a multi-layered visual style that has become a recognisable motif of Akomfrah’s practice.
In 2015, Akomfrah premiered his three-screen film installation Vertigo Sea, which explores what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls ‘the sublime seas’. Fusing archival material, readings from classical sources and newly shot footage, Akomfrah’s piece focuses on the disorder and cruelty of the whaling industry, juxtaposed with an exploration of the ocean’s role in the history of slavery, migration and conflict. Vertigo Sea was shown at The Exchange, Penzance, in 2016.
In 2019, on the occasion of his participation in the first Ghana Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, John Akomfrah presented Four Nocturnes (2019), a three-channel piece that reflects on the complex intertwined relationship between humanity’s destruction of the natural world and our destruction of ourselves.
Born in Accra, Ghana in 1957, Akomfrah lives and works in London. He has had numerous solo exhibitions and participated in many international group shows including: Prospect 4, New Orleans, LA, USA (2017); Restless Earth, La Triennale di Milano, Milan, Italy (2017); Unfinished Conversations, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY, USA (2017); British Art Show 8 (2015-17); All the World’s Futures, 56th Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2015); History is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain, Hayward Gallery, London, UK (2015); Africa Now: Political Patterns, SeMA, Seoul, South Korea (2014); Sharjah Biennial 11, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (2013); Liverpool Biennial, UK (2012) and Taipei Biennial, Taiwan (2012). He has also been featured in many international film festivals, including Sundance Film Festival, Utah, USA (2013 and 2011) and Toronto International Film Festival, Canada (2012). He was awarded the Artes Mundi Prize in 2017.