John Akomfrah's Installation at SFMOMA is a Chilling Chronicle of the Vast Oceans

Mar 03, 2018 - Sep 16, 2018SFMOMA, San Francisco

“The way of killing men and beasts is the same” Algiers, 1956.

Amidst images that pound with the power of receding sands on an ocean beach, Sublime Seas is punctuated by chilling intertitles that demand pause before another plunge into this video tryptych that is allegory, allusion, and immersion. The magic of Black Audio Film Collective founding member John Akomfrah’s installation at SFMOMA, is how spoken word and instrumental music orchestrate with multiple screen images, not to overwhelm, but to enthrall and expand on big ideas.

Beneath, African slaves chained in ships and boat people fleeing terrorist regimes, the sea below glows with frolicking aquatic life. A majestic whale is harpooned, a gamboling polar bear shot, and a refugee drowns, hair tangled with seaweed, and another screen shows an on-board officer grinning and chatting during a haircut. Archival footage mixes with glorious images shot on the Isle of Skye and northern Norway. And for those who marvel at a single butterfly sighting, know that this food for thought, and I use that phrase pointedly, ends with a thrumming lacework of marigold monarchs. Clocks litter a rocky landscape, a ticking sound pervades the soundtrack, as the force of nature pulsates through. Akomfrah challenges us with a primordial beauty.

Vertigo Sea made its debut at the 2015 VeniceBiennale. For Sublime Seas at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, John Akomfrah has paired Vertigo Sea with J.M.W. Turner’s The Deluge. It shows March 3 through September 16, 2018.––Gwynned Vitello