John Akomfrah and the Genocide on the High Sea

Even if John Akomfrah can’t stomach viewing Vertigo Sea one more time, his film remains a powerful testament to the huge loss of life — human and animal alike — civilization has caused on the open ocean.

On a recent Thursday morning, British filmmaker John Akomfrah stood on SFMOMA’s seventh floor as art-goers exited from a screening of his film Vertigo Sea. Akomfrah’s 48-minute work is a tour de force, a three-channel video that narrates the bloody history of whale-hunting, the slave trade, and other practices that relate to seafaring, including colonialism, environmentalism, and migration. You can’t look away from Vertigo Sea, whose thousands of scenes veer from utterly agonizing (like whales being harpooned to death and cut open for their meat) to utterly sublime (butterflies floating together in waves of form and color). Akomfrah’s movie, which includes scripted scenes, creates buzz wherever it shows, including its premiere at the 2015 Venice Biennale, where it drew critical raves like “spectacular” and “epic” and “must-see.”

But Akomfrah doesn’t want to see his own film. He even refused an invitation to sit down with others at SFMOMA’s gallery and watch the kaleidoscope of clips that he and his filmmaking team so painstakingly put together.

Akomfrah tells SF Weekly that Vertigo Sea is too painful for him to watch again.

“I can’t watch it anymore,” Akomfrah says. “I can’t watch it anymore, because in the course of trying to finish it, I think I crossed a line. There are one or two thinkers who basically told us over and over again that there’s this stage of being, and we have for a long time believed that [humans] were the only figures in that stage. And we know that’s not true. Deep down, everybody knows this is not true. Deep down. I happen to believe it passionately now. So I can’t watch it, because I know I’m watching fragments of a genocide. That’s basically what you’re watching.

“Whales have sizable brains,” he adds. “They have the ability to communicate across vast distances. And at octaves that we can never hear. We’ll never hear. I can’t watch it because I know what’s going on — and it’s not great.”

In Vertigo Sea, which makes its U.S. premiere at SFMOMA’s “Sublime Seas: John Akomfrah and J.M.W. Turner,” Akomfrah uses slow-motion and speed-ups to artful effect as he juxtaposes historic footage with modern imagery that was taken in northern Norway and in the waters and islands off Northern Europe. But it’s way more than the film’s visuals that enthrall. It’s the movie’s narrative use of poetic wording — from such texts as Moby Dick, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Friedrich Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (“in the end, one experiences only oneself”) — and its audio accounts of recent deaths and near-deaths of African immigrants in the Mediterranean who couldn’t even swim. Phrases like “There were 27 of them on board; none had been at sea before” coat the film in raw emotion. On top of that, it’s the music, which veers from funereal to operatic and almost religious, and the film’s nature sounds — including crashing waves, strong winds, and whales and polar bears in distress — that add still other layers.

Then there’s this for Akomfrah: He essentially sees himself in the film’s scenes of Africans whose bodies wash ashore in death. Akomfrah, who’s in his 60s, was born in the West African country of Ghana and spent his early childhood there before moving with his family to Britain. Akomfrah immigrated to England (which had colonized parts of Ghana) at a time when immigration was politically and practically possible. Akomfrah has since made it big in Britain and in art and film circles: In 2008, the British government made him an OBE,  a title that means “Order of the British Empire.” Last year, he won Britain’s biggest prize for international contemporary art, the Artes Mundi. But if a would-be John Akomfrah tried today to leave Africa for England, death and anonymity — not acclaim — would be the likely result.

“People are trying desperately to flee all parts of the world to get to Europe, and unfortunately, many thousands haven’t made it — and many, many thousands have perished at sea,” Akomfrah said during a separate talk with San Francisco journalists. “So Vertigo Sea really started with the realization of what divides my family — political exiles who flee Ghana in the 1960s after a military coup and settle in London, where I grew up — and someone fleeing Ghana four decades later, and the possibility that I may not have made it if I were doing it now.”

In the same gallery that’s screening Vertigo Sea, SFMOMA is exhibiting a J.M.W. Turner painting from the early 1800s called The Deluge, which depicts a hellacious storm of biblical ferocity, where people near a capsized boat are dead or close to drowning. Turner’s work has a black figure helping survivors. The exhibit’s inclusion of a 200-year-old painting, which Akomfrah chose (and which is on loan from Britain’s Tate), is unprecedented for a museum with a mandate of “modern art,” says Rudolf Frieling, SFMOMA’s Curator of Media Arts. One of painting’s seminal figures, Turner was the focus of a major 2015 de Young Museum exhibit.

“When we were having our first conversations around [the exhibit], I asked, ‘What would you love to do?’ and the idea to ask for a Turner painting struck me as brilliant — and I was envious that I didn’t have that idea,” Frieling says. “I’m a curator of media arts, and I’ve never, ever exhibited a painting from the 19th century. And I believe neither has SFMOMA done that. So it’s really a first in many ways — not just for John to exhibit his work in relation to a major historical painting, but for us to think about ways we could approach, in fresh ways, the idea of addressing contemporary questions.”

Vertigo Sea’s density of scenes is reminiscent of another SFMOMA film that had buzz: Christian Marclay’s The Clock, a 2010 work that’s 24 hours long and amalgamates thousands of movie scenes, all of which reference the exact time of day that a viewer is watching The Clock. But where Marclay’s film was grounded in playfulness, Vertigo Sea is a beautiful but harrowing experience that includes an old clip of animal trackers killing and skinning a bear in the Arctic. We see a new clip of starving polar bears searching for food amid fraying ice that’s the result of severe climate change. Killing animals and killing people — and treating the seas and environment with disdain — each require the same suspension of empathy and feeling, the film implies.

Akomfrah connects nuclear testing and mushroom clouds with animal cruelty and slavery that killed tens of millions of people, but he says he made some of the film’s most basic and important connections while working on it. The act of exploring oceanic history revealed more horror, more insight, and more sublimity than he could have imagined. Whaling has existed for millennia, and several countries still allow it despite a 1986 international ban on the commercial hunting of whales.

“I knew I wanted to do something on whaling and the transatlantic trade, and I hadn’t realized, for instance, quite how intertwined the two were — and once you figure it out it makes perfect sense,” Akomfrah, who lives and works in London, tells SF Weekly. “These ships, they needed to build them bigger because they needed them for whaling — to pull 10 and 15 tons of whale — but of course, that then makes them big enough to make these huge journeys across the Atlantic to get people across. That had never entered my mind. Or the fact that you would find in Algiers, in the 1950s, the same genocidal impulse that allowed colonels in the French army to think, ‘If we take these people up in a helicopter or plane and just drop them at sea, they will disappear’ — in Argentina in the 1970s.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Deluge

“That’s the whole point of artworks — to slowly, if there’s any integrity to them, suggest their own affinities, and to say, ‘Why don’t you look at this in relation to that?’ ” he adds. “I’d love to tell you that I’m a genius, but I’m not. I just believe in the open-endedness of the dialogue between me and the art world.” 

At SFMOMA on April 28 at 1 p.m., Akomfrah will give a free talk and the museum will screen three of his other films: Handsworth Songs from 1987, The Nine Muses from 2011, and The Stuart Hall Project from 2013. About Turner’s The Deluge, and including it at SFMOMA, Akomfrah says he saw Turner’s works as a teenager and wondered what it would be like “one day” to exhibit next to him.

“When I was 12,” he says, “I got something in Turner that I didn’t necessarily understand. I knew there was something going on — that this figure had a secret about light, about darkness. It took me a while to figure out that this enigma of darkness is one of the motifs of his own work. When works have something to say to you, it doesn’t matter if they’re Assyrian or Mesopotamian or 19th-century. I believe that.”

Turner’s painting has no words or moving pictures. Compared to Vertigo Sea, it’s a “silent” piece. But the pairing of The Deluge with Vertigo Sea gives Turner’s work a new edge. You can practically hear the people who Turner depicts shouting — as an African migrant does in Akomfrah’s film — “Jesus save me! Jesus save me!” Some of the figures in Akomfrah’s video are saved. And in their own way, these figures speak for the dead. That’s what Akomfrah is doing with Vertigo Sea — giving voice to people and creatures who don’t have the artistic language that Akomfrah does, or the opportunities to keep making connections for art-goers around the world. 

“Sublime Seas: John Akomfrah and J.M.W. Turner,” through Sept. 16 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St., $19-$25; 415-357-4000 or

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