John Akomfrah, who will be representing Britain at the 2024 Venice Biennale this Spring, has unveiled his latest film installation, “Arcadia”, an exploration of historical intersections between continents and cultures. It will be debuting at The Box, Plymouth.
“I wanted to go back to a time before the guns came out – to explore what other weapons, intended or otherwise, were in play.” – John Akomfrah
This ambitious project delves into the complex narrative of colonialism, migration, and the enduring impact of historical encounters.”Arcadia” is a culmination of Akomfrah’s intensive research, initiated in 2019 when he received the commission from The Box. The artist’s initial focus on the Mayflower’s voyage from Plymouth to America in 1620 expanded, reflecting on broader themes of settlement, migration, and the unforeseen consequences of human actions. The profound global shifts observed during the pandemic influenced the project’s evolution, highlighting humanity’s vulnerability and interconnectedness.
The installation offers a multi-layered, non-linear narrative, weaving together natural wonders like storms, seas, and mountains with symbols of trade, ageing boats, and the devastating impact of diseases like smallpox. Through these juxtapositions, “Arcadia” delves into themes of migration, colonial encounters, and the intricate web of growth and decay that defines human history.
Akomfrah’s work challenges the romanticised notion of a utopian “Arcadia” in the European imagination, revealing the complex realities of migration. While invoking notions of a new beginning, the title also carries an ironic detachment, reminding viewers of the unintended consequences that often accompany pursuits of freedom and self-discovery.
Presented as five screens arranged in a cross shape, a departure from Akomfrah’s previous three-screen works, “Arcadia” encompasses a rich tapestry of visual and auditory elements. The film incorporates music like “The African,” a 19th-century opera depicting colonial conquest, and clocks ticking, symbolising the arrival of the Modern Age.
“Arcadia” appeared at the ‘Sharjah Biennial 15: Thinking Historically in the Present’ earlier this year. Now significantly re-edited for its Plymouth presentation, the 50-minute installation forms a vital part of The Box’s ongoing exploration of history through exhibitions and events. The venue’s thematic focus on “Revisiting History” extends to other exhibits, including the National Gallery’s “Dutch Flowers” and Yinka Shonibare CBE RA’s “End of Empire,” offering visitors a nuanced perspective on Britain’s colonial past and Plymouth’s historical significance.
“Arcadia” is more than an artistic creation; it profoundly reflects the complex threads that bind our global story. As it unfolds at The Box from 30 November 2023 to 2 June 2024, viewers are invited to contemplate the intricate layers of history and the shared narratives that shape our world. Admission is free, and the exhibition welcomes visitors from 10 am to 5 pm, Tuesday to Sunday, and selected bank holidays. Experience the immersive journey that “Arcadia” promises, a testament to Akomfrah’s unparalleled vision and storytelling prowess.
John Akomfrah Arcadia The Box – Plymouth from Thursday, 30 November 2023, until Sunday, 2 June 2024