When John Akomfrah was announced as this year’s winner of Artes Mundi, the UK’s leading prize for international contemporary art, it struck a chord across the art world. The artist’s work often explores the diaspora, colonialism and underrepresented communities, but his prize-winning piece Auto Da Fé – looking at the historical and modern day causes of migration and global displacement – connected with a topic currently at the forefront of the world’s consciousness. Here, Artes Mundi director Karen MacKinnon writes about its significance.
At a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric has become a part of everyday politics, Akomfrah’s historical reflection on the past 400 years of migration Auto Da Fé seems, as Will Gompertz from BBC described it, “more important than ever”.
Auto Da Fé documents several waves of migration fuelled by persecution, from the fleeing of Sephardic Jews from Catholic Brazil to Barbados in the 17th century to present day displacement of populations from Hombori, Mali and Mosul under the same context of religious persecution. Presented as a period drama, the work, filmed in Barbados, navigates through a sequence of anonymous landscapes connected by the constant presence of the sea.
The work, which runs on two screens, each one offering a slightly different perspective of the same shot, draws you into the stories, the people, and the places. It makes you wonder about what they left behind and how frightening it must have felt to face the unknown, but above all it makes you realise how persecution has remained a constant throughout history, and it still is today. The sea that carried those who fled 400 years ago is the same one that carries those who flee today, while we witness the implacable flow of history as quiet spectators.
The universal nature of the stories in Auto Da Fé is truly moving. Visitors to the Artes Mundi 7 exhibition linger in the gallery; some tell us how the film will stay with them, one visitor said “This is my story, I lived this”, while others tell gallery assistants that the work reminds them of their family’s past.
While current events have drawn attention to the storylines depicted in John’s body of work over the past eight years, it is essential to point out the importance of Art and its place in contemporary society. It is part of Artes Mundi’s mission to exhibit artists that somehow comment on the subject of the ‘human condition’. John Akomfrah has the unique ability to draw on history to tell stories that explore current social and political concerns, reminding us of what it means to be human in the wold today.
Auto Da Fé is on display alongside the five other Artes Mundi 7 shortlisted artists’ work at National Museum Cardiff and Chapter until 26 February.