d. John Akomfrah / 2010 / UK / 46 mins
BFI Gallery @ BFI Southbank (London, UK)

View of Mnemosyne at BFI Gallery

A single-channel video work comprised of newly shot images, excerpts from past works and a swathe of archival materials from BBC Midlands, Birmingham Public Library and MACE (the Media Archive for Central England), Mnemosyne is a new gallery work from Ghanaian-born, London-raised artist and documentarian John Akomfrah.

Named for the Greek goddess of memory, Akomfrah uses a familiar poetic essay form to explore the meaning of identity and the identity of meaning amongst the migrant population of the West Midlands, framing his narrative on the notional roles of the nontuplet muses borne of a relationship between Mnemosyne and Zeus: Epic Poetry, Tragedy, History, Music, Sacred Song, Astronomy, Comedy, Erotic Love and Dance.

Drawing upon ancient myths to posit questions about modern ones, Mnemosyne sees Akomfrah combining newly shot material of mysterious figures in arctic landscapes with a range of archival moving image materials from the 1960s to the 1980s, including vox pop interviews, music and dance performances and general news footage. Adding a range of literary quotes and readings, Akomfrah has created a film which is at once highly stimulating and deeply disturbing, tracing the desires of the migratory population to integrate as well as the open resistance of certain sections of the incumbent white population.

The Midlands, specifically the northern suburbs of Birmingham, is not just an important location in the history of black and asian migrants to Britain, but is also the locus for Akomfrah’s own brand of deeply personal, activist filmmaking. As a member of the Black Audio Film Collective, Akomfrah’s first major experimental documentary work – Handsworth Songs (1986) – dealt specifically with the migrant identity in the aftermath of the Handsworth Riots in north Birmingham, which were themselves part of a wave of unrest across England – most notably in Brixton, London and Toxteth, Liverpool – in the early 1980s, as relations frayed between the black community and local police.

For Mnemosyne, therefore, Akomfrah draws upon his own history – as an individual and as a filmmaker – but also upon a rich vein of recent works which draw from film archives to illustrate intersections between the personal and the political, particularly Terence Davies’ personal portrait of Liverpool, Of Time and the City (2008), Guy Maddin’s similar, but slightly more abstract My Winnipeg (2007), and Sandhya Suri’s I for India (2005), which treaded similar terrain in its portrayal of an extended family split between India and Britain.

Whilst Mnemosyne is undoubtedly a work of great significance, its impact is perhaps diminished by its existence as a piece which exists somewhere between the white cube of the gallery and the darkened auditoria of the cinema. Too long as a single-channel gallery work at a little over 45 minutes, it is also too short to find a home in the cinema. Thankfully, however, Akomfrah has expanded upon the films’ themes and imagery for a theatrical companion piece – The Nine Muses – which premiered at this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Excerpts from a discussion of Mnemosyne can be found on the BFI website, as can the Q&A from the LFF screening of The Nine Muses.

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