Inverting the gaze: real life biography, game play fantasy and Frantz Fanon combine in the British artist’s films
In 1949, three years before he produced his formative psychopathological study Black Skin White Masks, Frantz Fanon wrote three experimental plays. Two of the works, L’Œil se Noie (The Drowning Eye) and Les Mains Parallèles (The Parallel Hands), resurfaced only two years ago, in their original French. A third is still at large.
When Larry Achiampong heard about Fanon’s lost theatre, his imagination was piqued: ‘Fanon’s work opened up a whole word of understanding as to why in some spaces I would feel very paranoid or on edge… It made certain feelings I had clear to me.’ Achiampong’s films, which explore the psychological impact of colonialism within the black diaspora, express an interest in consciousness that was central to Fanon’s writing. After 9/11, living with his father in Dagenham – on the eastern outskirts of London – the British-Ghanaian artist recalls racist remarks, wounds inflicted by the suspecting eyes and acerbic mouths of strangers on the tube. ‘Those things become etched in your mind. Reading Fanon at the time just opened it all up. I realized I wasn’t the problem and the gaze needs to be turned around.’
In David Blandy’s Biter (2013), the British artist sits among artefacts in Freud’s office and delivers Wu Tang Clan lyrics. Watching this, Achiampong saw the gaze inverted in an unexpected way: ‘I was just like, what the hell is this? A middle-class white guy trying to rhyme? It was ridiculous but amazing, the audacity .... I found it so interesting.’ Achiampong’s encounter with the work, and a shared love of ’90s hip hop and Super Mario, led to subsequent years of collaboration between the two Slade graduates, first forming a hip hop group of their own, and eventually working on the film trilogy, Finding Fanon (2015–17), inspired by the writer’s lost plays. In the trilogy, the two artists invoke the spirits of Fanon and Sartre, conversing on racism, capitalism and identity, avatars dressed in tweed and steampunk glasses, in a post-digital near future.
The trio of films (shot in the West Sussex seaside town of Shoreham-by-Sea) lyrically blend aspects of Afrofuturism, autobiography, comic book story arcs and gaming aesthetics, overlaid by prose written by the two artists, spoken by Hayleigh Joy-Rose, and undertowed by an original score composed by Achiampong. Part I opens with a montage of found and family photographs, virtual vaults that move between collective and personal: words flash up, ‘HAPPINESS’, ‘MOTHER’, ‘COUNTRY’, ‘FATHER’, ‘ENEMY’, with a rhythm that relates to both social media rants and street riots. We discover Blandy and Achiampong, in a cabin full of junk, hooking themselves up to a makeshift time-travel machine. It is an apt visualization of what Sun Ra writes in his poem ‘The No Point’: ‘when the person Myth meets the person Reality/The spirit of the impossible-strange appears/In dark disguise.’
When these two figures, part-myth, part-reality, reappear in Part II, they are digital, heavier-set versions of themselves, and trudge the limitless virtual terrains of Grand Theft Auto 5. The film was created on the game, using high-spec PCs, and required the artists to first play the game for a considerable amount of time in order to qualify to buy themselves their virtual tweed suits. Working with the structures of the game to recreate their images in itself exposed the systemic prejudice embedded in the engineering design of our alternative realities – Blandy’s character being easier to build, while Achiampong was obliged to have a haircut. ‘To put it bluntly most of the people who worked on GTA are middle-class white men, so the way they approach gangs and certain cultures is with a certain type of gaze, and with a certain relationship to violence … Linking back to Fanon, and his ideas about violence, that became a very interesting proposition,’ Achiampong explains.
The atmosphere of the three films alludes to the deep disorientation of displacement among the second generation of the post-colonial period. The poverty and racism that too often comes with that experience is something Achiampong has lived first-hand, growing up in East London, one of five children to a single mother. Pain and anger surge in Achiampong’s scripts, which are written like open letters: ‘Our lives are political because our bodies are’ – ‘to be raised in a land where you’re forced to assimilate…’. It’s an experience that is, the artist admits, very different to Blandy’s knowledge of violence and racism.
Yet in Finding Fanon, the two figures negotiate a space that is wide open, where the position of the white male figure isn’t an antagonist to the black male. The setting, and the presence of their bodies within it, is a place of intersection – a word that is repeated in the film’s narration. They are kindred adventurers, reconciled in a world they have created to analyze themselves. In the final part of the trilogy, they are back in Shoreham-by-Sea, roaming the coastal landscape, two fathers walking hand in hand with their two children, contemplating how they can, and cannot, affect the future.
The future feels close: Achiampong references time and space as they feel in Hollywood fantasy films, like Thor, Mad Max and Terminator, psychological thrillers such as The Parallax View or Chris Marker’s 1962 La Jetée, as well as Cosplay and gaming, chimerical worlds in which he found himself. ‘I feel very much like Jean Grey or Wolverine or Black Panther,’ he says. ‘I remember watching Thundercats – which is really the story of refugees – or X Men, which is about the next stage of human evolution. I remember these stories were always about people who were different, or seen as freaks, and of course in my reality, I was and continue to deal with that feeling of being an outcast, of being a minority, so I felt I could connect with these characters, who like me were experiencing being different.’
From physical mutants to mutations of culture, Achiampong’s works are in dialogue with Afrofuturism, a genre that originated in the works of late 20th century African-American writers like Octavia Butler, and has been continued to be defined by musicians and visual artists predominantly from the US, such as Ellen Gallagher. Achiampong has just returned from New Orleans, where he participated in the city’s triennial exhibition Prospect 4. In this context, introducing British landscapes – Wanstead Flats, Bethnal Green and Dagenham in East London, coastal Dungeness and Cornwall’s Gwennap Pit – and, significantly, the sea surrounding Britain, becomes an important element to the work, and in considering the histories of bodies that have been forced, and continue to be forced, across Europe from the African continent, as part of the trajectory of Afrofuturism.
This comes to the fore in a new film, part of an ongoing and incomplete series, Relic 0 (2017). Currently showing at London’s Jerwood Space as part of a group show ‘3-Phase’, in the film, the camera pans over rural, post-apocalyptic landscapes once again – in South Africa and the UK, a prologue that takes place at a point in time when the pan-African nation is prospering and independent. In the next chapter, Relic 1 – which was screened at the King’s College London Arts and Humanities Festival in October – we meet one of the Relic Travellers, (played by Achiampong’s young son, Sinai), his uniform embroidered with the same flag the artist has designed to fly on the roof of Somerset House (a banner configured in pan-African colours). The mission of the Relic Traveller is to collect stories, remnants of the downfall of the west and the collapse of the colonial project, so that they can be shared.
The most personal of those stories is perhaps told in Sunday’s Best (2016) originally shown at the Diaspora Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale and now showing at Copperfield, London (coincidentally housed in a former Church in Southwark). The work ruminates on religion and faith – subjects that aren’t exactly fashionable in contemporary art – and the role of Christianity in colonialism and in diaspora identity. It was shot in the last church Achiampong attended (The Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of The Assumption in Bethnal Green) and features his mother, evangelizing, in an intensely emotive performance of faith, that is both critical and cathartic. Achiampong’s great-uncle was the first Ashanti to become an ordained Catholic Priest, and while he spent his childhood frequenting various evangelical and Catholic churches with his family, he is also estranged from a brother due to the religion. But as ever in Achiampong’s work, there is no room for didacticism, and autobiography is folded back to the edges, inviting a plurality of voices to assemble rather than collide in confrontation.
In 2015, Achiampong, who became a father at 24, spent time at Belmarsh Prison working with young fathers from similar backgrounds to his own, now in a system that he says he could easily have wound up in himself. It’s the proximity of such parallel universes, real and imagined, good and bad, that his work is concerned with. ‘I wanted to start telling some stories that went straight for your jugular. What’s going on in this contemporary moment and how we could pick that apart using vocal testimony.’ This belief in the power of human stories, previously forgotten and buried, links Achiampong’s practice to that of Smoking Dogs Films (the production company founded by John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul and David Lawson, formerly of the Black Audio Film Collective), or Lubaina Himid – but where the older artists make more use of the past, Achiampong creates the realm of the just-beyond present. His own son, the Relic Traveller, is a synecdoche, for all children, for possibility – as Octavia Butler writes in 1998’s Parable of the Talents, ‘cast from paradise – Into growth and new community, Into vast, ongoing Change.’
Larry Achiampong’s ‘Sunday’s Best’ is on view at Copperfield, London until 16 December 2017. The group show ‘3-Phase’, featuring Achiampong’s film Relic 0 (2017), is on view at Jerwood Space, London, until 10 December 2017 and his Pan African Flag For The Relic Traveller’s Alliance is on view at Somerset House until 31 January 2018.
Main image: Larry Achiampong & David Blandy, Finding Fanon 1, 2015, Ultra HD video still. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Claire Barrett