John Akomfrah
Akomfrah at Artes Mundi 7, Cardiff, October 2016
Born (1957-05-04) 4 May 1957 (age 67)
Alma materPortsmouth University
Occupation(s)Film director, artist, curator
Years active1986–present
Notable workHandsworth Songs (1986)
Seven Songs for Malcolm X (1993)
The Unfinished Conversation (2013)
Purple (2017)
AwardsArtes Mundi Prize

Sir John Akomfrah CBE RA (born 4 May 1957[1]) is a Ghanaian-born British artist, writer, film director, screenwriter, theorist and curator of Ghanaian descent, whose "commitment to a radicalism both of politics and of cinematic form finds expression in all his films".[2]

A founder of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982, he made his début as a director with Handsworth Songs (1986), which examined the fallout from the 1985 Handsworth riots.[3] Handsworth Songs went on to win the Grierson Award for Best Documentary in 1987.[4]

With Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, his long-term producing partners, Akomfrah co-founded Smoking Dogs Films in 1998.

In the words of The Guardian, he "has secured a reputation as one of the UK's most pioneering film-makers [whose] poetic works have grappled with race, identity and post-colonial attitudes for over three decades."[5]

Akomfrah was chosen to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2024.[6]

Early life and education

John Akomfrah was born in Accra, Dominion of Ghana, to parents who were involved with anti-colonial activism. In an interview with Sukhdev Sandhu, Akomfrah said: "My dad was a member of the cabinet of Kwame Nkrumah's party.... We left Ghana because my mum's life was in danger after the coup of 1966, and my father died in part because of the struggle that led up to the coup."[2] This struggle goes in ties with the imbalance of his identity that he expresses in his "Conversations with Noise" that was part of the Five Murmurations (2021). Akomfrah has been fortunate enough to be educated in the schools of Britain around he age of 8. His excellence as a student led him to showcase this struggle with this imbalance between Britain's colonization and his identity.


He was one of the influential creators during 1982, as he founded the Black Audio Film Collective, in which unfortunately was discontinued until 1998. In this organization, he and others focused on the backlash the Black community in Britain received and the mental toll of their identities's being effected. In the art of film, Akomfrah experimented with sound to display the struggles the Black community in Britain received in the films that ties into his driving likings to sound it self and how it transgresses to a moment of time and the results of it being.

In 1998, together with Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, his long-term producing partners, Akomfrah co-founded Smoking Dogs Films.[7]

From 2001 to 2007, he served as a Governor of the British Film Institute.[8] From 2004 to 2013, he served as a governor of the film organisation Film London.[9]

Akomfrah has taught multiple courses at academic institutions, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology,[10] Brown University, New York University, Westminster University, and Princeton University. A tri-campus three-day event entitled "Cinematic Translations: The Work of John Akomfrah" was held in November 2013 at the University of Toronto, where he was artist-in-residence.[11] A Harvard Film Archive critique of his work states: "Akomfrah has become a cinematic counterpart to such commentators of and contributors to the culture of the Black diaspora as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Greg Tate and Henry Louis Gates. In doing so, he has continued to mine the audiovisual archive of the 20th century, recontextualizing these images not only by selecting and juxtaposing them but also through the addition of eloquent and allusive text."[12]

Akomfrah's works are included in the permanent collections of museums worldwide such as the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Pérez Art Museum Miami,[13] the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, among many others.

On 24 January 2023, it was announced that Akomfrah will represent the UK at the 60th Venice Biennale in 2024.[14]

Solo presentations

Akomfrah has had solo presentations at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (2022),[15] Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (2019),[16] Bildmuseet in Umeå, Sweden (2015), Broad Art Museum, East Lansing (2014), Tate Britain, London (2013), Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (2012), the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011) and the British Film Institute, in the BFI Gallery (2010).[17]

In 2013, his major work The Unfinished Conversation, a multi-layered installation, was shown in Tate Britain for six months in 2013, and was acquired for the National Collection.[18] Marking its 10th anniversary, The Unfinished Conversation was remounted at the Midlands Arts Centre as part of the Birmingham 2022 festival.[19]

His 2015 work, Vertigo Sea, is a three-screen film installation that was shown at the 56th Venice Biennale in May 2015.[20][18] Vertigo Sea premiered in the UK at the Arnolfini in Bristol (16 January–10 April 2016)[21] coinciding with an exhibition of new and recent work by Akomfrah being shown at Lisson Gallery.[22] In October 2016 his 40-minute two-screen video installation Auto Da Fé, filmed in Barbados and inspired by the theme of 400 years of migration and religious persecution, went on show.[18] Vertigo Sea premiered in the UK at the Arnolfini in Bristol (16 January–10 April 2016)[21] coinciding with an exhibition of new and recent work by Akomfrah being sin Cardiff.[23]

Purple (2017), a 62-minute, six-screen video installation commissioned for the prominent Curve Gallery space at the Barbican, London, Akomfrah describes as "a response to [the] Anthropocene".[24] A tie-in series of film screenings comprising selections made by Akomfrah was held from October 2017 at the Barbican Cinema.[25] The installation has travelled to the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Bildmuseet Umeå, Sweden; the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, Massachusetts; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington DC; and Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon.[26][27][16][15]

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide George Floyd protests in 2020, Akomfrah began working on Five Murmurations (2021), a 55-minute, three-screen video, as a visual response to his sense that "it felt like there were almost two pandemics, overlapping, jostling and clashing with each other."[28] Akomfrah premiered the film in a solo presentation at Lisson Gallery in New York in 2021.[28] The film has since been shown in solo presentations at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht, in 2022;[29] and the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., in 2023.[30]

In 2023, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Akomfrah debuted a new five-channel work titled Arcadia. Reflecting on The Columbian Exchange – the widespread transfer of plants, animals, precious metals, commodities, populations, technology, diseases and ideas between the Americas, Afro-Eurasia and Europe from the 1400s onwards – the film was shown at the Sharjah Biennial before receiving its UK premiere at The Box in Plymouth where it is currently showing until 2 June 2024.

Awards and honours

Akomfrah was appointed as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2008 New Year Honours for services to the film industry.[31] In March 2012, he was awarded the European Cultural Foundation's Princess Margaret Award.[32]

In 2013, he was awarded honorary doctorates from University of the Arts London[33] and from Goldsmiths, University of London.[34][35] In 2014, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Portsmouth University, the reformed polytechnic from which he had graduated in 1982.[36][37]

In 2017, Akomfrah won the biennial Artes Mundi Prize, the UK's biggest award for international art,[38] having been chosen for the award for his "substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution", including his work Auto Da Fé.[23] Akomfrah said of his winning two-screen video installation, which explores the theme of mass migration over a 400-year period: "I wanted to focus on the fact that many people have to leave because something terrible is happening, it’s not just about leaving for a better life, many people feel they have to leave to have a life at all."[39]

Akomfrah was appointed as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2017 Birthday Honours for services to art and film making.[40] He was named Artist of the Year in the 2018 Apollo Magazine Awards.[41] He was elected a Royal Academician in 2019.[42]

He was knighted in the 2023 New Year Honours for services to the arts.[43]



  1. ^ "British Film Institute ScreenOnline biography".
  2. ^ a b Sukhdev Sandhu, "John Akomfrah: migration and memory",The Guardian, 20 January 2012.
  3. ^ Childs, Peter; Storry, Mike, eds. (2002). "Akomfrah, John". Encyclopedia of Contemporary British Culture. London: Routledge. pp. 18–19.
  4. ^ The Grierson Trust. Archived 25 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Hannah Ellis-Petersen, "John Akomfrah: 'I haven’t destroyed this country. There's no reason other immigrants would'", The Guardian, 7 January 2016.
  6. ^ Adams, Tim (7 April 2024). "Interview'Another layer of pigment needed adding to the canvas': artist John Akomfrah on changing the narrative, from Windrush to colonialism". The Observer.
  7. ^ Smoking Dogs Films website. Archived 20 February 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ British Film Institute Board of Governors (Minutes), September 2007.
  9. ^ "Award-winning film director joins Film London", Film London, 9 August 2004.
  10. ^ "John Akomfrah and Lina Gopaul", Arts at MIT.
  11. ^ "Cinematic Translations: The Work of John Akomfrah - November 27-29", Department of Historical and Cultural Studies, University of Toronto, Scarborough.
  12. ^ "John Akomfrah, A Poet in the Archives". Harvard Film Archive. 8 March 2014. Retrieved 24 May 2022.
  13. ^ "John Akomfrah: Tropikos • Pérez Art Museum Miami". Pérez Art Museum Miami. Retrieved 22 August 2023.
  14. ^ Khomami, Nadia (24 January 2023). "John Akomfrah to represent Britain at Venice Biennale". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 January 2023.
  15. ^ a b "John Akomfrah: Purple". Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden | Smithsonian. Retrieved 22 August 2023.
  16. ^ a b "At The ICA Watershed, John Akomfrah's 'Purple' Mourns A Planet Lost". 23 May 2019. Retrieved 22 August 2023.
  17. ^ Fabrizi, Elisabetta, The BFI Gallery Book, BFI, London, 2011, pp. 268–279.
  18. ^ a b c "John Akomfrah's new film 'Vertigo Sea' at Venice Biennale" Archived 26 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine, Invisible Dust, 7 May 2015.
  19. ^ Grant, Colin (16 May 2022). "Interview | John Akomfrah on Stuart Hall: 'When I first read him, I thought he was white'". The Guardian.
  20. ^ "John Akomfrah", La Biennale di Venezia.
  21. ^ a b "John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea" Archived 16 July 2019 at the Wayback Machine, Arnolfini.
  22. ^ "John Akomfrah, 22 January – 12 March 2016", Lisson Gallery.
  23. ^ a b "John Akomfrah wins £40,000 Artes Mundi prize in Cardiff", BBC News, 26 January 2017.
  24. ^ Sean O'Hagan, "John Akomfrah: 'Progress can cause profound suffering'", The Observer, 1 October 2017.
  25. ^ "John Akomfrah: Purple", Barbican.
  26. ^ "2019 ICA Watershed: John Akomfrah: Purple". Sotheby's.
  27. ^ "John Akomfrah. Purple". Museu Coleção Berardo.
  28. ^ a b c Fullerton, Elizabeth (1 September 2021). "An Artist Who Brings Order to Chaos". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 3 September 2021. Retrieved 20 October 2023.
  29. ^ "Annex John Akomfrah". Centraal Museum. Archived from the original on 6 June 2023. Retrieved 20 October 2023.
  30. ^ "John Akomfrah: Five Murmurations". National Museum of African Art. Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on 14 October 2023. Retrieved 20 October 2023.
  31. ^ "Full list of New Years' Honours" (PDF). BBC News.
  32. ^ Alexis Akwagyiram, "John Akomfrah: Little known, much decorated film-maker", BBC News, 20 March 2012.
  33. ^ "How to succeed in the arts – UAL’s high profile honourees share their insights" Archived 14 June 2018 at the Wayback Machine, University of the Arts London, 23 August 2013.
  34. ^ "Goldsmiths to honour leading figures at annual Presentation Ceremonies" Archived 1 January 2015 at the Wayback Machine, News from Goldsmiths, 13 September 2012.
  35. ^ "John Akomfrah OBE (DLit)", Goldsmiths. Archived 23 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  36. ^ Sashakay Fairclough, "Prominent Black Film Director Awarded Honorary Degree" Archived 4 May 2019 at the Wayback Machine, The Voice, 9 July 2014.
  37. ^ "Luminaries in fashion and film recognised" Archived 5 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine, University of Portsmouth, 9 July 2014.
  38. ^ Hannah Ellis-Peterson, "John Akomfrah wins Artes Mundi prize and attacks UK's intolerance", The Guardian, 26 January 2017.
  39. ^ Jane Morris, "British artist John Akomfrah wins £40,000 Artes Mundi Prize — The Ghanaian-born film-maker’s work draws on themes like migration, colonialisation and the environment", The Art Newspaper, 27 January 2017.
  40. ^ "No. 61962". The London Gazette (Supplement). 17 June 2017. p. B8.
  41. ^ Fatema Ahmed, "Artist of the Year", Apollo, 26 November 2018.
  42. ^ "John Akomfrah – Artist". London: Royal Academy of Arts.
  43. ^ "No. 63918". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 2022. p. N2.
  44. ^ "John Akomfrah – The Unfinished Conversation" at Autograph ABP.
  45. ^ William Oppon, "The Unfinished Conversation - An Exhibition By John Akomfrah, OBE" Archived 1 January 2015 at the Wayback Machine, Urban Times, 15 January 2014.
  46. ^ "John Akomfrah: Precarity" at Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (29 March–2 September 2018).