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John Akomfra: Tropikos

February 24 – Sep. 17, Peréz Art Museum Miami

John Akomfrah’s Tropikos could be the film presented to an alien race in a preface to a conversation about colonialism and post-colonial identity. With Tropikos, Akomfrah, an interdisciplinary Black British artist, has created an acutely personal and painful exploration of the layered relationship between the African diaspora and the former colonialist nations of Europe.

The film begins and ends on a jetty off the coast of West Africa. It’s from there that the majority of African bodies were collected for the Western slave trade. Across the film’s four chapters, the viewer is ferried back and forth between England and West Africa, in what Akomfrah has described as “a water and dream tetralogy.”

In the opening shots of the film, two African men walk abreast in traditional wear, unaware of a European man following at a distance. All three men have walked through the archway of a fort. These forts, commonly called slave castles, were used to hold slaves and goods, while slave traders occupied the upper levels. The exit leads to the last bit of African land slaves would touch.

Water flows throughout the piece. In various forms, water visually and sonically inundates the viewer and bleeds from one scene to the next. It acts as a transformative mechanism. The initial relationship of the African characters to water is one of enjoyment and respect. Early in the film, one character crouches at rest in the shallows, trailing his fingers through the water almost like he is touching a lover. He gazes beyond the camera’s eye. The water serves as more than part of a function like bathing or laundering. It welcomes his presence, gentle and inviting, its calm surface reflecting the sun’s warmth. Again, the character is so engrossed in his water play he seems oblivious to the European slowly encroaching, foreshadowing the major shifts in the relationship between man and water. Eventually water becomes a tool used by these same characters to uphold a system of transporting commodities between the continents. As the film progresses, the European will carry the African away from his home to a distant shore, stripped of his agency. In a quest to regain a semblance of power, he learns to navigate the water, returning to Africa, but in his new role as an agent of colonial expansion. A skipper, he steers a boat full of goods that promises to feed the Empire’s economic growth and geopolitical influence. Rather than cleanse, water ultimately serves to perpetuate the sins of colonialism.

The relationships between the African and European characters evolve through the film. The African characters have been divided and assimilated into their new lives. Odd camera angles and spatial positioning of actors capture the slow, insidious entry of the Europeans into the spaces once solely occupied by the African characters. A lack of direct interaction between the black and white characters reflects a failure to recognize or acknowledge the weight of their connection to one another. Black and white characters often share a scene, a boat, even a home- but there is no character dialogue in the film.

This silence throughout the piece awakens other modes of perception. The viewer must give full attention to the screen or miss the precious subtlety of the larger narrative. One is flooded in a barrage of images. Food is a recurring theme, representing bounty as it flows west, hangs by strings in trees, and rots on tables. Scenes of decadence often take place outdoors, contrasting with the natural environment.

The auditory senses are just as engaged, working harder to discern the significance of the natural sounds and the Old English narration that accompanies the visuals. A British male narrates excerpts from Western literature that include Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and Milton’s” “Paradise Lost,” scripts notable for references to sea and sin respectively. The audiovisuals give an epistolary feel to the piece, evoking the feel of a tale told through letters and moving snapshots. This makes for a dynamic experience and sparks an internal dialogue, giving life to the origin story of the African diaspora in relation to European colonialism.

Variations of the word “civilization” are often repeated in European documents of the time. Akomfrah adeptly captures the uncivilized civility of the English colonists. Europeans crafted mandates to maintain civility while occupying other lands. There is an emphasis on restraint of emotions and desires, not in line with Biblical or developing racial and socio-economic rules. The rituals of British civilization were maintained in cultural institutions like Bible study and tea time. The film reinforces this idea of institutionalization in visibly unhappy marriages, the wearing of stiff, cumbersome clothing, and formal table settings. The discontents of civilization seep into the lives of the colonized, who are forced to adopt its rules and roles.

The film is surreal, full of jarring juxtapositions captured in the dreamlike atmosphere and slow camera movements. The colonists dressed in full costume of the era against backdrops of undeveloped land, the lack of dialogue, rotting feasts, and perpetual proximity to water symbolize the dissonance of the black diaspora’s contemporary existence in the western hemisphere.

As a black British citizen, the same land Akomfrah calls home, England, feeds on the subjugation of the people native to the land his ancestors called home, Ghana. Akomfrah was born there two months after the country was granted independence from England in 1957. His parents were anti-colonial activists forced to flee for Britain when Akomfrah was four years old. The filmmaker has his own complicated history of movement. When neocolonial politics called for a softer European occupation, Ghanaians fighting for true sovereignty and autonomy were at risk of persecution by the new government. Though it was not via the slave trade route, Akomfrah’s forced migration to England is a direct consequence of colonization. His story speaks to the unique story of each member of the black diaspora, and colors our interpretation of the film. As an artist, Akomfrah continues along the path of his parents’ political activism. His founding of the Black Audio Film Collective gives a global audience access to an expanded range of facets in the black experience. Akomfrah’s works for the collective are Afro-futuristic, surrealist, radical works that stretch our minds and push for further conversation.

The film is told in a way that relies on the viewer’s interpretations. There is space given for the tale to grow, and herein lies the value of Akomfrah’s work as a centerpiece for conversation on black movement and European engagement. A viewer’s unique perspective informs the processing of the characters’ identities and the nuances of each interaction.

In contrast to the other characters in the film, the role of the one black female seems minimized, and does not leave much room for development of complexity. Almost an afterthought, she is confined to representing an aspect of the colonial narrative, an illustration of the history of the English marrying into local bloodlines as they became settlers. The constriction to a flat stereotype of the black woman, a prop in the story of the African diaspora, reflects a common shortcoming in contemporary race conversations. The wider implications of this marginalization, on and off-screen, directly affects the current political, and economic state of black women globally as documented by the United Nations and World Health Organizations in regular reports.

Deep into the film, one realizes that the relationship between each character is one of resignation; the dutiful agreeance of everyone involved to cycle through a system of misery in the name of progress. This resignation is on the face of each unhappy wife forced to live a life according to the will of her husband, whether she be African or European. It is the same resignation of the British husbands who fulfill the duties of their government appointments (few married officers wanted to live so far away from the comforts and safety of their homes back in England). It is the resignation of self of all Africans who were enslaved, assimilated, and/or married into European culture.

The measure of the main character’s indoctrination comes at a place of intersecting identities where many members of the African diaspora precariously balance- is he now a well-trained agent of westernization to be sent out to spread the seeds of neocolonialism, or an amalgam of European and African who must find a way to satisfy the distinct and often conflicting needs of multiple identities? He returns to Africa with the ways of an Englishman, seen in his table settings and his dress, and no longer a commodity accompanying other goods from Africa. He has been granted the power to captain the boat full of exploited resources and controls his relationship to water.

The film ends as a slow submersion in water and the viewer understands that the narrative has not ended — it flows offscreen and into the real world of global identities, the repercussions of colonial history and the continued movements of the African diaspora.

Tropikos made its North American debut at Peréz Art Museum Miami (PAMM) in July 2017.


John Akomfrah, Tropikos, 2016. Single channel HD color video, 5.1 sound. Running time: 36 min., 41 sec. Editions 2/5 + 2. APs. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery