John Akomfrah, OBE a British artist and filmmaker of Ghanaian descent, whose works are characterised by their investigations into memory, post-colonialism, temporality and aesthetics and often explore the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the USA, has been named the winner of this year’s Artes Mundi prize.
The biennial award, held in Cardiff, is the UK’s biggest prize for international contemporary art. It comes with £40,000 prize money and focuses on artists who engage with social and political issues and the human condition.
Akomfrah’s winning piece, Auto Da Fé, is one of his several recent works which engage with humankind’s long tradition of migration and refugees that goes back centuries. It draws on the aesthetics of a period drama to frame historical and contemporary migrations, from Sephardic Jews fleeing Brazil in 1654 to the recent Isis-driven genocide of the Yazidis in Iraq and Christians in Mosul. The artist examines eight interconnected migrations spanning the last four hundred years and focuses on religious persecution as the leading cause of global displacement.
He said they were made in part as a response to the “shameful” hostility that has greeted the millions of people driven out of Africa and the Middle East seeking safety on European shores. The work was first conceived in 2009 when he said he first got a sense of the anti-immigrant feeling that was beginning to creep into everyday conversation and politics.
Post-Brexit, a time when nationalism is on the rise across Europe and Donald Trump’s first move as US president has been to halt all refugee asylum in America, Akomfrah said the work felt “even more urgent” than when he completed it a year ago. He used the Artes Mundi platform to berate the bleak culture of fear and intolerance he said had gripped Britain and admitted he was far from finished with tackling migration in his works.
“We are currently experiencing the worst discussion of migration I have lived through, in the forty years I have observed these debates. It feels bleak, it feels intolerant and it feels frightening.” He added, “Most of the ideas in Auto Da Fé were really about saying to people: ‘You really have to consider the option that people are migrating literally to survive. They come here to be able to live because there isn’t an alternative anywhere else.’ And that seems to be an insight that has been lost.”
Akomfrah’s work will be on display alongside the works by shortlisted artists Neil Beloufa, Amy Franceschini, Lamia Joreige, Násito Mosquito, and Bedwyr Williams at the National Museum Cardiff until February 26.