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Arnolfini - est 1961

The UK premiere of John Akomfrah’s acclaimed video installation Vertigo Sea.

Vertigo Sea, a three-screen film, first seen at the 56th Venice Biennale as part of Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures exhibition, is a sensual, poetic and cohesive meditation on man’s relationship with the sea and exploration of its role in the history of slavery, migration, and conflict. Fusing archival material, readings from classical sources, and newly shot footage, the work explicitly highlights the greed, horror and cruelty of the whaling industry. This material is then juxtaposed with shots of African migrants crossing the ocean in a journey fraught with danger in hopes of ‘better life’ and thus delivering a timely and potent reminder of the current issues around global migration, the refugee crisis, slavery, alongside ecological concerns.

Shot on the Isle of Skye, the Faroe Islands and the Northern regions of Norway, with the BBC’s Bristol based Natural History Unit, Vertigo Sea draws upon two remarkable books: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’ epic poem Whale Nation (1988), a harrowing and inspiring work which charts the history, intelligence and majesty of the largest mammal on earth.

As part of the exhibition, a new work Tropikos (2016) will also be shown. Set in the sixteenth century and using the writings and memoirs of a number of seafarers as its raw material, this single channel film is a Brechtian costume drama which merges Shakespeare’s The Tempest with true accounts of the journeys to and dreams of the ‘New World’. Exploring the point in history when Britain’s economic exploitation of Africa began, this work focuses on the waterways of the South West and their relationship to the slave trade, referencing larger themes of colonialism, maritime power and loss.

Shown together, these two lyrical and melancholic films propose a ‘voyage of discovery’, a meditation on water and the unconscious, referring specifically to the passage of migration into the UK. Placed in the context of Bristol, the films connect to this city’s complicated maritime history and its position as port – a point at both the start and end of epic journeys in the past and the present.

Vertigo Sea is presented in Bristol with support awarded to Arnolfini through Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund. During 2016 and 2017 Arnolfini will lead a national tour of the work to venues across the UK including Turner Contemporary, Margate and The Whitworth, Manchester.

Tropikos is a 70th Anniversary Commission for the Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre London, with the River Tamar Project and Smoking Dogs Films.


Exhibition Guides:




John Akomfrah is an artist and filmmaker whose works are characterised by their investigations into personal and collective histories and memory, cultural, ethnic and personal identity, post-colonialism and temporality.  Importantly, his focus is most often on giving voice to the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the USA.

A founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, his work has been shown in museums and exhibitions around the world including the Liverpool Biennial; Documenta 11, Centre Pompidou, the Serpentine Gallery; Tate; and Southbank Centre, and MoMA, New York. A major retrospective of Akomfrah’s gallery-based work with the Black Audio Film Collective premiered at FACT, Liverpool and Arnolfini, Bristol in 2007. His films have been included in international film festivals such as Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, amongst others. He has recently been shortlisted for the Artes Mundi 7 prize. 

John Akomfrah talked to TateShots about how he navigates between the gallery and cinema and what compelled him to make Vertigo Sea.

Download the John Akomfrah fact sheet