John Akomfrah: Tropikos
July 9, 2019 — January 5, 2020
John Akomfrah’s 2016 film Tropikos is a beautiful meditation on Britain’s participation in the ugly, traumatic Transatlantic Slave Trade.
In the mid-sixteenth century, England began exploiting the natural resources of Guinea in West Africa, shipping raw materials and humans between Guinea and the port city of Plymouth.
The film confronts that moment in history, exploring the more complex and often subtle dynamics between the slave owners and the people they enslaved. Akomfrah uses still camera shots to create a giant tableau vivant —still living picture—filled with wealthy English merchants in decadent dress silently engaging with their enslaved Africans along Plymouth’s coast. The eye-to-eye interactions suggest the unseen emotional, physical, sexual, and psychological violence millions of African peoples endured for centuries, resulting in immense riches for their European captors.
An omnipotent voice recites text from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611) and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) over these scenes. The voiceover alludes to the figures on the screen being caught in an incredible hallucination, a nightmare for one group and a wondrous dream for another. Though half a millennia have passed from the historical events Akomfrah presents, humans today are still feeling the effects.