John Akomfrah wins Artes Mundi 7 Prize

John Akomfrah. Auto Da Fé, 2016. Two channel HD colour video installation, 5.1 sound. 40 minutes 30 seconds © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah. Auto Da Fé, 2016.

Two channel HD colour video installation, 5.1 sound. 40 minutes 30 seconds
© Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

In a ceremony held last night at National Museum Cardiff, John Akomfrah was announced the winner of the prestigious biennial Artes Mundi award which comes£40,000 prize money.

Akomfrah’s work often explores the global diaspora, history, memory, colonialism and its legacy through lens-based media. The range of single and multi-screen films allows us to reconsider the ways in which we think about both personal and collective histories, the grand narratives of our times, across nation states and continents. His work has often given voice to underrepresented communities and their universal stories told through the creation of sublime imagery, and evocative and immersive soundtracks.

In Auto Da Fé (2016) Akomfrah specifically uses the aesthetics of a period drama to consider the historical and contemporary causes of migration; in this work he focuses on religious persecution as a major cause of global displacement. The subtle historical references combined with its sumptuous costumes, locations and sets, allude to the reality of migration and persecution that has taken place throughout the centuries.

The film brings together 8 interconnected mass migrations which have taken place during the past 400 years beginning with the little known 1654 fleeing of Sephardic Jews from Catholic Brazil to Barbados. Auto Da Fé then continues to reveal many more examples of displacement throughout history and in the present day for example migrations from Hombori, Mali and Mosul, Iraq. The landscape in which this work was filmed is deliberately ambiguous in an attempt to reflect the universal and ongoing nature of these stories. As in other recent works such as Tropikos (2016) and Vertigo Sea (2015) the ocean plays an important role – it is an intermediate zone between the past and present, local and global and holds the memories of all those individual and collective journeys.

John Akomfrah said:

“I am absolutely touched by this and enormously grateful for the chance it offers to finally finish off something I have been planning for over a decade. Over the years, Artes Mundi has chosen some very brilliant artists for this award: all were important artists doing challenging and engaged work, and to join that group is a huge honour and responsibility.”

Karen Mackinnon, Artes Mundi Director has said:

“We are delighted to announce John Akomfrah as the winner of the seventh biennial Artes Mundi Prize. Artes Mundi champions leading contemporary artists, from across the world, whose work relates to every aspect of our personal lives in a global society. Artes Mundi’s focus on the human condition finds a unique resonance in these uncertain times. We want to thank our panel of judges for their sensitivity, thoroughness and intellectual rigour in selecting the winner.  The judges felt that all the shortlisted artists showed outstanding work.  However the prize is awarded not just for the work in the exhibition but for the continued excellence of their practice over the past 8 years. The Artes Mundi 7 Prize was awarded for Akomfrah’s presentation of Auto Da Fé and for a substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution. To speak of these things in this particular moment feels more important than ever.”

John Akomfrah’s work alongside the other shortlisted works are on display at National Museum Cardiff and Chapter until 26th February.

The night also saw Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams awarded The Derek Williams Trust Purchase Award for his entry Tyrrau Mawr, a giant video installation of an imagined a futuristic city built on the slopes of Cadair Idris; a piece which will now be added to National Museum Wales' permanent collection.