A new work by seminal filmmaker John Akomfrah will go on show at The Public January 2010 as part of Made in England, a partnership initiative developed by Arts Council England and BBC English Regions.
Akomfrah was given access to the BBC’s television, film and sound archives for Made in England, a project that reflects how England makes art and art makes England. He chose to focus on the experience of migrant labour in the West Midlands to create Mnemosyne, a poetic essay on the themes of memory and migration.
Mnemosyne refers to the mother of the nine Muses, the personification of memory in Greek Mythology. The belief was that those souls who chose to drink from the river of Mnemosyne, rather than from Lethe, would remember everything and attain omniscience. Akomfrah’s work questions memory and suggests the possibility for endless re-interpretation of historical events by interweaving archival footage from 1960-1981, with contemporary ‘portraits’ of Birmingham and extracts of new work filmed in a remote snowy landscape.
Often referred to as ‘filmed essay’, Akomfrah’s work involves the creation of quasi-fictional scenarios, a questioning of the evidence that we find in archival material. For Mnemosyne, he used the BBC archives as a starting point to explore attitudes, assumptions and understandings about life in the West Midlands during a key moment in Britain’s immigrant history. Material has also been drawn from MACE (Media Archive for Central England) and Birmingham Central Library; joining up archives in this way is one of the pioneering aspects of the project.
Snatches of Homer’s Ilyiad, with its themes of journeying, alienation and reconciliation and memory, are narrated in voiceover through the nine ‘chapters’ of the film, each section named for one of the Muses.
Akomfrah says: “Going through the archives was an amazing voyage of memory and discovery. I am using the expression ‘tone poem’ to suggest the lateral journeys within Mnemosyne that play on the main theme of the fragility, the burden and the excess of remembering.”
It is 25 years since Akomfrah began work on Handsworth Songs, the film that established both his name and that of Black Audio Collective, the group that he co-founded. Hailed as one of the most influential documentaries ever made, it garnered a range of international awards and was one of the first documentaries to be successfully released in British cinemas.
For further information on Mnemosyne and Made in England please contact
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NOTES FOR EDITORS
John Akomfrah OBE
Born in Accra, Ghana (1957), John Akomfrah is one of five children of Ghanaian political activists. He was educated at local schools in West London and at Portsmouth Polytechnic, where he graduated in Sociology in 1982.
Akomfrah is best known for his work with the London-based media workshop Black Audio Film Collective, which he co-founded in 1982 with the objectives of addressing issues of Black British identity and developing media forms appropriate to this subject matter.
Akomfrah’s work takes a deliberately questioning approach to documentary film. His debut as a director, the controversial and influential Handsworth Songs (1986), reworks documentary conventions to explore the history of the contemporary British black experience: the film won seven international prizes, including the prestigious John Grierson Award. Testament (1988) is a portrait of an African politician forced into exile after a coup d’etat. The emergence of Black Power in Britain is the inspiration for Who Needs A Heart? (1991) and Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993).
Besides making theatrical films, Akomfrah has directed many television programmes, including one about Martin Luther King for the Reputations series (‘Dr Martin Luther King: Days of Hope’, BBC, tx. 30/7/1997) and another on Louis Armstrong for the BBC arts programme Omnibus (‘The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong’, BBC, tx. 10/5/1999). A critic as well as a film-maker, Akomfrah has written widely about African cinema and is currently on the Boards of both Film London and the London International Film School. He is also a Visiting Professor of Film at the University Of Westminster.
In February 2007, a full retrospective of Akomfrah’s work with the Black Audio Film Collective ran at Foundation for Creative Technologies in Liverpool, to great critical acclaim.