John Akomfrah (British, born 1957) . The Unfinished Conversation. 2012. Three-channel video (color, sound). 45 min. © 2017 John Akomfrah

“Identities are formed at an unstable point.”- Stuart Hall

“Will white power, its time of gross stupidity and hurt, never finally pass?” – Bennett Simpson

The Museum of Modern Art recently acquired The Unfinished Conversation (2012), a three channel video installation by John Akomfrah.  The work is at the heart of an exhibition of  “Unfinished Conversations” that features new work from the MoMA collection.  Akomfrah’s installation speaks to the very crux of where we are now in the United States and across parts of Europe.  The present push towards nationalism and continued war efforts around the globe confronts 70 years of progress in regard to social equality and multiculturalism.  Today’s philosophical discord against humanism creates an abject psychological state that allows violence and racism to persist.  When we see discrimination today it points directly to the unfinished conversation of racism in the world.

We need to look no further than Bill O’Reilly to find an example of reticence to give up old ways of thinking.  The political pundit’s book “Old School: Life in the Sane Lane” written with Bruce Feirstein plays off the name-calling division of the 2016 election by creating a cockamamie code of judgments and moralistic assumptions intended to usurp political correctness.  The book provides ammunition to the right in the cultural war and lends its feeble minded attractors a sense of superiority.  O’Reilly insults a liberal education saying you are a snowflake if  “your degree contains the words ‘comparative, ethnic or studies.’ ”  This hostility to cultural identity is irrational at its core and points to the kind of confusion that further erodes any kind of conversation by presenting a narrative of absolutes, superior and inferior or in this case snowflake or old school.

On the other hand, John Akomfrah’s “The Unfinished Conversation” is an intellectual project that reflects the life and work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall (b. Jamaica 1932-2014).  The conceptual center focuses on identity in the post-colonialism era.  The simultaneity of a three channel video installation creates a montage effect versus the linear narrative of a single screen with its affinity for Aristotelian storytelling.  Multiple screens challenge the viewer.  For Akomfrah montage has  “the notion of an open source aesthetic” and “something that invites participation, critical reverie, interrogation.”  This active effort of looking rather than passive acceptance produces greater associations and furthers understanding of diverse viewpoints by widening our frame of reference.

John Akomfrah (British, born 1957) . The Unfinished Conversation. 2012. Three-channel video (color, sound). 45 min. The Contemporary Arts Council of the Museum of Modern Art, The Friends of Education of The Museum of Modern Art, and through the generosity of Bilge Ogut and Haro Cumbusyan, 2016. © 2017 John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah (British, born 1957) gives us a unique perspective that comes from a similar set of circumstances as his subject Stuart Hall.  Both were born into a period of colonialism and both immigrated to England where they were largely educated.  Hall hails from Jamaica and while Akomfrah migrated to England from Ghana when his mother’s life was threatened by the 1966 coup in which his father perished.  Hall came to England for opportunity but found himself isolated in a world of incredible racial tension within frameworks of power and education that reinforced it.  He would go on to change historical thought as a pioneer of cultural studies and multiculturalism, exposing hegemony at home and abroad while showing us clearly that systematic deprivation is the most important issue in racism.

The film uses many voices as a backdrop to Hall’s sociological thoughts, which are the thrust of The Unfinished Conversation.  Fragments of poems are interspersed with music to create an overall impression of the time and current thinking.  Stuart Hall says “he lived through the greatest class differentiation.”  In Jamaica, “what shade you were was very important to class.”   His sister had fallen in love with a black doctor but was strictly forbidden to marry and was subsequently treated with shock therapy.  This is the sad reality of the time.  The dreadful oppression of feeling that uncomfortable in your own skin color.  He mentions the Jews and their distinct identity and preservation thereof.  The narrative circles back  to Blake and his poem “The Tyger,”  and finds inspiration in modern Jazz, where “from the margins formed in me the inspiration to go and get whatever it was.”  The idea of coming to terms with oneself is of the greatest importance.   To know thyself.   The never-ending process of solving the enigma and its shadow, the promise of the beyond.  wars in the Suez and Vietnam where anti-imperial politics were born, reinforce the notion that history is an evolving thing that is never a clear-cut interpretation.  Propaganda is always lurking, creating anxiety, difference, and more confusion during a time bereft of moral leadership.  And then, the emergence of multiculturalism.  By witnessing the film, we are present at Kelso Cochrane’s funeral, in the mills of Coketown with its black canal from the textile mill, in the rice fields of Vietnam, traversing through race riots and frightful bombs drop through the air.  In the end, a dramatic rendition of Mahalia Jackson perspiring over “Silent Night,” her clear voice heard like the strength of millions singing, “Rise, a Savior is born,” as we see a newborn baby’s head push through the birth canal as another screen exhibits body bags.  The juxtaposition is hopeful but destruction of the human race is certainly the overriding message.

If art is to be truly political and move away from its compliance with cheap commercialism this is certainly one of the paths.  There is a genuine sense of edification through experiencing this film installation.  Visitors were rapt with attention.  How we perceive history is important.  Like art, changes of perception are fluid.  The present is always a mirror of the past, but as fresh perspectives arise new identities emerge, shattering certain reflections.  I urge everyone to see this important work.

“Unfinished Conversation” runs through July 30th, 2017 at the Museum of Modern Art.  More information on the exhibition is available here: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/3651?locale=en

Further Information

-JSB