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John Akomfrah: Mnemosyne - BFI Gallery

John Akomfrah

Exhibition preview

MNEMOSYNE by celebrated British filmmaker and artist John Akomfrah (b.1957) opens at the BFI Gallery on July 10 and runs until August 30, 2010.

Mnemosyne is a powerful new film installation which focuses on the experience of migrant labour in the UK – a poetic essay on the themes of memory and migration. To make it, Akomfrah combined newly shot footage with archive material from the various television and film archive libraries.

Mnemosyne refers to the mother of the nine Muses, the personification of memory in Greek mythology. Akomfrah’s work questions memory and suggests the possibility for endless re-interpretation of historical events by interweaving archival footage from 1952 to 1981 with contemporary ‘portraits’ of Britain and extracts of new work filmed in a remote snowy landscape.

Often referred to as ‘film essays’, Akomfrah’s work involves the creation of quasi-fictional scenarios, a questioning of the evidence found in archival material. For Mnemosyne, he used the BBC archives as a starting point to explore attitudes, assumptions and understandings about life in the West Midlands during a key moment in Britain’s immigrant history.

Snatches of Homer’s Iliad with its themes of journeying, alienation, reconciliation and memory are narrated in voiceover through the nine ‘chapters’ of the film, each section named for one of the Muses.

Akomfrah says: “Going through the archives was an amazing voyage of memory and discovery. I am using the expression ‘tone poem’ to suggest the lateral journeys within Mnemosyne that play on the main theme of fragility, the burden and the excess of remembering.”

Born in Accra, Ghana in 1957, the son of Ghanaian political activists, Akomfrah was educated in West London and at Portsmouth Polytechnic where he graduated in Sociology in 1982.

He is best known for his work with the London-based media cine-cultural studio, the Black Audio Film Collective, which he co-founded in 1982 with the objective of addressing issues of Black British identity.

Akomfrah’s directorial debut was the controversial, influential and Grierson award-winning film Handsworth Songs (1986) which explored the history of the contemporary British Black experience.

As well as making films for the cinema he has directed several films for gallery spaces, many television programmes and has written widely about African cinema. He is currently developing a film installation for a gallery with the cultural theorist Professor Stuart Hall, a film on ex Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver and various feature films ideas. For further information about John Akomfrah OBE visit

The exhibition is supported by Arts Council England.

Admission: Free.

Times: Tuesday to Sundays (and Bank Holiday Mondays): 12 noon – 8pm.

BFI Gallery, BFI Southbank, Belvedere Road, London, SE1 8XT

Tel: Daily Information: 020 7633 0274; Box Office: 020 7928 3232