John Akomfrah’s three-screen video installation Vertigo Sea uses a rich collage of film, history and literary references to explore the interconnections between colonialism, migration and climate change.

Akomfrah was born in Ghana and grew up in Britain, where he studied sociology at Portsmouth Polytechnic. He came to prominence with his documentary film Handsworth Songs (1986), made with the Black Audio Film Collective, which he co-founded in 1982.

Vertigo Sea, which premiered at the Venice Biennale in 2015, presents a multilayered narrative across history and geographical locations with the sea as a linking theme. Among the subjects explored in the film are the history of the sea as a burial ground, often for exploited or displaced peoples, as well as its dark record as a killing field, particularly for the whaling industry.

By depicting scenes of African migrants risking their lives to cross the ocean, Vertigo Sea speaks to current traumas such as the refugee crisis, modern slavery and ecological concerns. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time, with references including the Zong Massacre of slaves in 1781, as well as literary works such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

Vertigo Sea is a joint acquisition by Towner Art Gallery and National Museum Wales, both organisations with coastal sites and historic collections featuring seascapes.


The artist through Lisson Gallery

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