The British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale: John Akomfrah’s Ode to Migration

John Akomfrah, Listening All Night To The Rain. Photo: Jack Hems

The British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale explores global narratives through the stories of Britain’s migrant communities. It showcases artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah’s non-linear storytelling and collage, challenging traditional roles of art in history-making by linking different geographies and eras.

Listening All Night To The Rain, inspired by 11th-century Chinese writer Su Dongpo, combines new footage, archival videos, and stills with audio and text from global archives. It features eight multi-media installations titled “Cantos,” hinting at Ezra Pound and the Latin for “song.” Akomfrah emphasizes sound, influenced by the concept of “acoustemology” by Steven Feld, exploring how sound reflects and shapes culture.

By starting in the pavilion’s basement, he leads us to an unfamiliar staircase, surrounded by a chaotic mix of old radios, tape recorders, decks, boomboxes, vinyl records, and a tangle of wires and magnetic tapes hanging from the ceiling, with ethereal voices fading in and out.

Through grand narratives and personal moments, from rocky shores and riverbeds to scenes of rebellion, brutality, and discrimination, Akomfrah navigates us through a profound and distressing journey across six interconnected, room-sized film installations, enhanced by screens hanging in the pavilion’s portico. The repetition in these works builds to a powerful effect that exceeds the sum of the exhibition’s parts.

At 66, the renowned artist, celebrated for his evocative multi-screen film installations, has reflected on the expectations his role brings. In Africa, he identified as Ghanaian. In England, he became just Black. The theme of migration pervades the artist’s work, sometimes as its main subject, sometimes subtly, through autobiographical elements or as a metaphor for displacement and alienation. Akromfrah consistently encounters a poignant paradox: the migrant’s journey is deeply lonely yet widely shared.

His latest project for Venice represents a peak, making Listening All Night to the Rain more than immersive—it is unsettling, sorrowful, and completely enthralling with Akomfrah using his signature motifs to contrast a nightmarish cycle of endless repetition, highlighting his recurring themes.

Born in Accra, Ghana, in 1957 and relocating to the UK at four, John Akomfrah, the British filmmaker, writer, and artist, is celebrated for his compelling documentaries and experimental films that delve into migration, diaspora, memory, and identity. His collaborative and solo endeavors have earned him global recognition, with his films featured at leading film festivals and exhibitions worldwide.


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