On the Films of Ayo Akingbade
by Ralf Webb
Midway through Ayo Akingbade’s short A is for Artist (2018), the protagonist—played by Akingbade herself—leaves her flat, presumably in an effort to clear her head, or to gather her thoughts. She gazes out over a grassy knoll which fills the frame. And then: a figure with enormous, splayed, non-human hands strides across the hill. Seen as it is from a distance, the figure is almost silhouetted, its movements uncanny. The hands swing one after the other, in jagged, choppy motions, which are reminiscent of stop-frame animation, or phantasmagoria.
On seeing this figure up close, we are shocked to find that it is in fact the protagonist herself—or at least, some version of her, a doppelgänger, whose enormous hands are gloves, made from fabric. The doppelgänger continues to stride, fiercely determined, driven—or led by—the swinging motion of her hands. There is an intuitively-grasped splitting of selves here: the protagonist, who earlier in the film is shown engaged in the assembly of photos from her father’s archive, and the pure, creative force—that determination of vision which fuels the creative process.
Throughout the remainder of A is for Artist, the protagonist—clad in a trench coat, like a Noir detective—wanders London in pursuit of her doppelgänger. There are echoes and traces: she sees, from a distance, a young woman, swaying a newspaper back and forth whilst walking. But it is not her. The Noir atmosphere is sustained by the film’s rich, staticky grain: black-and-white, shot on 16mm film, the grain hangs in every frame like weather, like a psychic fog in which the protagonist—and the viewer—is interminably lost.
A is for Artist also recalls the work of Maya Deren, in particular Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), where Deren encounters several iterations of herself—and pursues, on a loop, a cloaked, mirror-faced figure. Like Deren, Akingbade’s work often feels like it is tracing the pattern of a subliminal embroidery, progressing with a generative dream-logic. The pair of scissors, for instance, which slice through an aloe leaf as easily as if it were butter, or flesh: this slicing is a premonition of the splitting of selves, the splayed aloe leaves presage the doppelgänger’s elongated, splayed fingers. Akingbade crafts images of such power, that are both inventive and yet weirdly familiar, as to burrow into our subconscious, threatening to re-emerge later in our dreams.
Let’s get rid of the ghetto, Let’s get rid of the ghetto, Let’s get rid of the ghetto. The narrator, voiced by Akingbade, repeats this imperative during Tower XYZ (2016), a short, vivid and allusive film which tracks the fragmentary progress of three young women as they move through the metropolis. Tower XYZ is the first in Akingbade’s No News Today trilogy: a series of films connected by their focus on housing, gentrification, and regeneration in London.
That imperative recurs as a kind of refrain within the narration-as-a-whole, which is perhaps best described as poetry. It is a lyric poetry, sustained by the personal pronoun, but one that interjects upon the film’s visual action: “I want to wear purple lipstick like Bianca Jagger”, the narrator proclaims, as one of the three women applies purple lipstick in the mirrored surface of a lift. The interweaving of the singular “I” with the group of women allows this lyric “I” to speak for—or to speak as—several voices at once. Through this collective voice, the dreams, thoughts, and desires—both concrete and abstract—of the film’s characters unfurl as a single stream:
I hope I don’t die for a long time, I’ve still got things I want to do and look at and boys to talk to
I want to see an African spirit, or like, sleep on top of a volcano
I want to talk to [insert name here] about life, consciousness…
In a recent interview, the poet Ilya Kaminsky said that a “great poet is a very private person who happens to write beautifully enough, powerfully enough, spell-bindingly enough that they can speak privately to many people at the same time… a very private speech that the form teaches you how to partake in—and that becomes the reader’s own private speech”. This is true of Akingbade’s poetry. Tower XYZ’s narration can be read as the vehicle through which the film’s characters bear witness to, and hope to parse, the myriad hypocrisies, mysteries and complexities of a rapidly transforming and gentrifying London. It is also the means through which the characters hope to (re)locate themselves within the city, as their own local cultural and familial heritage is threatened by the conspiring forces of appropriation and industrial development. But such is the power and generosity of Akingbade’s poetry that it blooms outward, speaking across the idiosyncratic, private and personal histories from which it derives, to us all individually: it becomes part of our speech, and we are invited to partake in it, too.
Akingbade takes an archaeological approach towards the materiality of film itself. As well as her extensive use of archival materials—photographs, newspaper clippings—she also shoots on 16mm film stock, which is then transposed onto digital. Shooting on 16mm challenges the viewer’s ability to easily discern the film’s temporal settings—the films look somehow antiquated, as though dislodged or out of step with the contemporary time period in which much of their action takes place. The effect is such that, when Akingbade revisits historical accounts—as she does in the film-essay So They Say (2019)—past and present bleed into each other.
Set both “in 1985 and the present day”, this film tells of the racist violence enacted upon different communities in East London in the mid-80s, communities—as one of the interviewees puts it—”who had their backs to the wall: Asian, African, Caribbean”. So They Say spotlights the Newham Monitoring Project, an anti-racist community organisation that was developed in the early 1980s, following the murder of Akhatar Ali Baig, an East Ham teenager, by a white gang. Through the weaving together of personal testimony and archive material, two stories of racist police tactics, and the NMP’s activism in response, emerge: that of the Newham 7, and the Pryce brothers. In the former case, seven young Asian men were arrested for defending themselves against a group of white attackers, while the perpetrators went free; in the latter, Eustace Pryce was murdered in a racially motivated attack, and his brother, George Pryce, was arrested, while the murderer went free. So They Say is in conversation with Handsworth Songs (1986), a film-essay—directed by John Akomfrah as part of the Black Audio Film Collective’s œuvre—about the 1985 riots in Handsworth, Birmingham, and Tottenham, themselves triggered by racist police violence. Mark Fisher, writing on Handsworth Songs in 2013, remarked that “it is important to resist the casual story that things have ‘progressed’ in any simple linear fashion since Handsworth Songs was made”.
Akingbade’s archaeological approach rallies against any such reductive claims of progress, by underscoring that racism, racist tactics, violence and injustices are endemic in British society, that they run in seams through the strata of our collective history. By shooting the present-day on grainy 16mm—scenes outside East Ham station, a market, a family walking along the road—we are shunted forward, as viewers, from the past into the now, but remain unsure of our temporal footing. The police brutality that sustained “past” injustices, we are reminded, is still here, it’s still happening. Akingbade conveys this formally, too, with a mind-boggling sleight of filmic hand: she recreates, with period costume and set-design, the NMP offices as they would have looked “back then”. The effect is such that we think we are there, in 1985: that is, until the camera pans to a Black Lives Matter poster. “Many things are still the same”, one of the interviewees states at the close of the film, “the racism within education, within housing and employment, it’s still there.”
Akingbade’s artistic response to the prejudices and injustices written into our history isn’t a fatalistic one, though. A pattern is identified, but so is a means of rupture. Frequently her work contains an expansive gesture, a looking outwards, or forwards. This is shown, to inspiring effect, in Claudette’s Star (2019), described as a “part ode” which depicts young artists “considering with sheer wonder who is given a voice”. Claudette’s Star is named after Claudette Johnson, a British visual artist and founder of the Blk Art Group—an association of young black artists founded in 1979.
The film opens with a young woman walking through a field of lavender, before lying down in the grass. From her perspective, we see her arms and hands stretch out and open up toward the blue, cloud-stippled sky: a similar gesture to that of A is for Artist’s doppelgänger, though the tone and feeling here is one of joy and optimism, rather than surrealist unease. Suddenly, her hands clap closed, as if to capture and hold the spectacular openness and expansiveness suspended in that vast and clear ether. The film then meanders through a gallery, offering hypnotic and freely associative shots of paintings, sculptures, statues, and fragmented interpretations of the work by two narrators, before finishing with four micro-interviews with the young artists in the Royal Academy Library.
In the closing shot, these four artists stand in the library gallery against a backdrop of bookcases stuffed with leather-bound hardbacks. They look up and out, silently, above the confines of the library, the bookcases, and then beyond the confines of the frame itself: perhaps at the very same sky that opened the film. They seem to be waiting for something—some knowledge, the spark of an idea or vision—or else looking outward, scanning the terrain of the future, so that they might map it. One by one, they step contentedly out of frame, into the unknown.
Ralf Webb is a writer and editor. Previously he co-ran the Swimmers pamphlet and event series, and works as Managing Editor at The White Review. He also runs ‘PoetryxClass’, an Arts Council England-funded reading group series around British poetry, poetic practice and class. His debut collection of poetry, Rotten Days in Late Summer, will be published by Penguin in 2021.