As America rages over its president’s decision to ban the entry of refugees, this film looks at four hundred years of forced migration. There are no words, and yet every individual conveys a tense disconnection from alien surroundings – they are far from home. Each individual is lost in hypnotised introspection.
“Over four centuries, they felt that their lives were somehow being shaped by forces of destruction, religious persecution, economic hardship,” explains John Akomfrah, a British artist. His video Auto Da Fé covers a long tradition of migration undertaken by humans, starting with the little known 1654 fleeing of Sephardic Jews from Catholic Brazil to Barbados.
The title, which translates to Acts of Faith, won the £40,000 Artes Mundi prize in Cardiff, the UK’s biggest prize for international contemporary art.
The video carefully orchestrates narratives of eight migrations from Hombori, Mali and recent Isis-driven victimisation of the Yazidis in Iraq and Christians in Mosul. The result is a feeling that no matter which religion we talk of, it is inextricable from persecution and migration.
The artist, who himself migrated from Ghana as a child, tells the The Guardian that Auto Da Fé is a response to the “shameful” hostility towards migrants seeking safety on foreign shores.
He attacks the lack of sensitivity, intolerance and the culture of fear in Europe. “You really have to consider the option that people are migrating literally to survive. They come here to be able to live, because there isn’t an alternative anywhere else.”
The ocean is one of the common elements on the display – similar to Vertigo Sea (2015) below, which reminds us of the recent stories of stranded migrants from Burma, Syria and African countries like Yemen and Somalia. “The migrants have to navigate corridor of uncertainty…and death,” points out Akomfrah.
Akomfrah’s works are known for highlighting underrepresented communities in the post-colonial world and their universal stories told through imagery and evocative and immersive soundtracks.
The Stuart Hall Project (2013) is one such film. It is centred around the famous cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who influenced black British constructions of identity in the second half of the 20th century. The documentary, through archived audio and television interviews, shows how Hall did what he did.