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What is the distinction between art and documentary?

Anthropologists have suggested that aesthetic behaviour began in early homo sapiens as a means of social bonding and pleasure. Art is one such manifestation of our aesthetic behaviour. A documentary, on the other hand, records a version of reality. The lifespan of an Atlas moth. The history of electricity. The process of canning fruit.

Art documents the human condition. Yet there are few works of art that draw attention to this fact. John Akomfrah’s exhibition at the Lisson Gallery is one of those few. Using three video installations, Akomfrah documents both the history and art of humanity.

In Tropikos, the viewer is transported into a nearly forgotten past and met with the ghosts of the slave trade during the British Empire. But this is not a classroom documentary. There is no regurgitation of historical facts and numbers. There are no gratuitous depictions of cruelty either. Set against the lush scenes of Plymouth and the Tamar Valley in the sixteenth century, you see carefully orchestrated table displays of pearls, jewellery, tribal masks and — of all things — tropical fruit. A slave stands behind the table display and stares serenely back at you. Oddly enough, the bright bananas and large pineapples appeal more than the little trinkets of wealthy colonisers.


Auto Da Fé also tackles the topic of migration, but this time it’s in the context of religious persecution. This film covers much ground, spanning 400 years, dedicating itself to the countless people that have had to flee their homes due to religious conflicts over the years. The migrants portrayed indeed wear very different clothes from their respective eras, yet their faces tell the same story of displacement and alienation, such that one can hardly tell that the film stretches across centuries of human history. One is also told that this installation was filmed in Barbados, yet one can hardly tell because the empty seaside, the house in ruins, the abandoned bus stop, all could belong to any time or space. The places are as nameless as their occupants.


This writer recommends that a visitor at Akomfrah’s exhibition views The Airport last among the three installations. It is the most timeless piece, and it is the piece that poses the biggest question to humanity. In The Airport, one sees an astronaut standing alone in an abandoned airport. A couple from the 60s stroll past the astronaut, but they do not notice him. They approach another couple and shake hands, make small talk. The smiles and small talk seem hollow. The ignored astronaut also seems hollow. It is hard to tell if there’s even a person in there. In this film, metaphors of the past and future are placed in the same scene, but they refuse to confront each other. It is as awkward as small, insincere talk. Is humanity in denial of how little progress we have made as human beings in spite of our technological advancements?


Part documented fact, part constructed aesthetic. Combining art and documentary is a tall order. It is difficult to achieve because it can easily come across as contrived. But Akomfrah somehow does it well. Akomfrah’s installation films not only capture beautiful scenes, but also succeed in documenting the otherwise intangible: the reality of humanity in both its beauty and ugliness.

John Akomfrah’s exhibition is at the Lisson Gallery from 22 January to 12 March 2016.


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