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African Soldier 1

John Akomfrah: why there is hope amid the climate crisis

The filmmaker honoured with the RPS Lumière Award says there is cause for optimism even in a time of environmental gloom

From Mimesis: African Soldier (2018)

Is John Akomfrah an optimist? The artist and filmmaker, who has received the 2022 RPS Lumière Award, has spent the last 40 years confronting racism, political inequality and environmental catastrophe in his work. In the circumstances, is optimism even possible? 

Akomfrah made his name as part of the Black Film Collective working on the film Handsworth Songs. It was put together during the 1985 riots in Birmingham and examined black British experience in the UK since the Second World War. More recently his work, particularly with his company Smoking Dogs Films, has explored the anthropocene epoch, examining the impact of human actions on the planet.

Four Nocturnes 1

From Four Nocturnes (2019)

In short, Akomfrah is concerned with the costs of living the way we do, politically and culturally. Given the state of things, you might assume he veers towards the despondent when it comes to weighing up where we are right now. 

Then again, maybe not. “I have pessimistic moments,” Akomfrah admits, “but I look at these profound transformations in our culture. Great things have happened on a planetary scale to people and their lives. And they’re all, in the main, causes for good.  

“Some really terrible things are happening as well but they don’t, in my mind, outweigh the great things. 

“Everywhere I go the thing called globalisation is bringing all kinds of insights and ways of being and seeing into the lives of people who otherwise would not have these things. 

Precarity 1

From Precarity (2017)

“I’m not a Trumpian who thinks everything is really terrible. Lots of things are really great and in the bad things there are the seeds of solidarity and community and agency.” 

This is a consoling vision and one that may surprise anyone who has seen Akomfrah’s installation Purple, which unblinkingly confronts the scale of the decimation on the environment wrought by mankind. 

Then again, without hope there is only despair. What matters, Akomfrah says, is that we face up to the reality. And this is happening. 

As he points out, “You can’t go anywhere on the planet where people are not aware that we don’t have much time.” 

Vertigo Sea 2

From Vertigo Sea (2015)

All images by John Akomfrah /