Through Saturday, Sep. 2
Nasher Museum of Art, Durham

“I like the sense that once something drops out of the universe of history, [it goes] into a parallel universe of fiction,” John Akomfrah told the INDY at the opening of Precarity, his three-channel video installation on view at the Nasher through the fall.

The piece takes up the life and myth of Charles “Buddy” Bolden, the New Orleans cornet player who is apocryphally said to be the first jazz musician. Though speculative accounts of Bolden’s life exist, very few facts remain. What is a matter of historical record is that Bolden died in 1931 after spending two decades in a mental institution. Akomfrah was inspired by Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje’s 1976 novel about Bolden. Spiraling out from the bare-bones facts of Bolden’s life, Akomfrah weaves a meditation on madness, desire, and creativity under the materially precarious conditions of diaspora.

Precarity escapes easy categorization, existing in a liminal space between essay film, experimental documentary, fiction, and sculpture. The installation, which runs on enormous screens, montages various historical and fictional materials together: black-and-white archival photographs of the New Orleans African-American community framed in close-up in the bed of a rushing river, fictional tableaux from Bolden’s life on high-definition color video, documentary footage of early-twentieth-century white Americans playing at amusement parks and working in factories, and wide-angle, panoramic long takes of the city’s contemporary infrastructure, rendered in twilit oranges and oily browns. With each of the screens cutting between these variegated materials, the past seems to continually intrude upon the present.

In recent years, some critics have pointed out that experimental film’s increasing consumption in contemporary art spaces instead of traditional theaters leads to distracted, superficial engagement with moving-image works. Precarity takes up the challenge of being built for fragmentary viewing in a gallery without losing its force or complexity. Because the piece resists narrative closure, you can walk in and out, viewing it from different angles and encountering it in different ways, though it also rewards focused linear viewing to fully experience the juxtapositions of text and image. To Akomfrah, the multiple screens allow a certain freedom.

“On a single screen, closure is necessary because otherwise things start to look confusing,” he says. “On the multiple screens, the confusion is part of the structure.”

In the sense that Precarity is an essay film, it makes its arguments subtly and masterfully. For example, Akomfrah builds an implicit argument about who benefitted from America’s grand narrative of progress by juxtaposing archival footage of white workers in early-twentieth-century factories with still portraits of black people in New Orleans inundated by river water.

In highlighting Bolden’s inability to fully appear in his own biography, let alone the official history of jazz, the film shows how African-American New Orleans came to be construed by white America as both a rich storehouse of culture and a social problem, an idea epitomized by Bolden’s troubled yet lucid soliloquies, as voiced by actor Christopher Udoh.

“Being a problem is a strange experience, even for one who has never been anything else,” he says, poignantly driving home his sense of being and feeling other.

In the film’s fictional episodes, a sad-eyed young Bolden, wearing a jaunty bowler hat, looks out over the landscape of early-twentieth-century Louisiana. Shot on high-definition video, the slow movements of the actors and the precise turn-of-the-century costumes feel curiously stuck in a no-time that is neither historical nor contemporary. An image of Bolden’s lover, elegantly still on a settee beneath a vodou flag, seems transmitted from a place where history has been petrified because these characters and images have fallen out of the archive. Like Bolden’s life, swept away by time and water and official history, their stories are waiting to be told.

One persistently fascinating aspect of Akomfrah’s work is how omniscient voiceover narration weaves together found and new texts, placing a poetic intertextual layer over the montage of images. When we hear Bolden quoting Genesis, saying, “I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth” as we see portraits of African Americans washed over by water, the quote erupts into a riotous polyphony. It is at once the voice of God, the voice of otherness, and the voice of elemental forces that will sweep away history and fragment memory.

A Londoner of Ghanaian descent, Akomfrah says he is drawing on the connection between water and memory celebrated by his ancestors in the Accra region.

“The key deities of West Africa are water-centered, and most of them are deities of memory,” he explains. “When you want to summon the gods, you pour libations, you pour water on the ground, and you start a series of incantations, and it’s through the incantatory logic of your speech that they are supposed to come.”

Since the early eighties, Akomfrah has been committed to exploring the psychic and cultural experience of diaspora and immigrationits concomitant losses, as well as the ways in which diasporic peoples, finding themselves displaced and dispossessed, reshape the world into which they arrive as strangers.

Akomfrah says two opposing themes dominate his exploration of diaspora: “This question of protestI don’t want to be here, I want to goand accommodation. Shit happens; we’re here. Let’s lie down by the rivers of Babylon and sing a song.”

Akomfrah’s expansive collage method and fictionalization of Bolden’s life are an implicit argument that there are things we may know more deeply through fiction than through fact. In Akomfrah’s reanimation, history is a mythology that lives on in our recursive imagination and in our retelling of it, illuminating the elisions of an archive in which protected materials are determined by race, class, health, and other factors. Like the best of Akomfrah’s films, Precarity complicates the narratives of cultural memory and erasure, fiction and truth, assimilation and refusal.