John Akomfrah: The Last Angel of History
January 14 to May 22, 2017
John Akomfrah is a ground-breaking British artist and filmmaker of Ghanaian descent who brings to the fore questions of race and post-colonial identity in his installations and films. Presented to coincide with Black History Month in February 2017, his acclaimed film The Last Angel of History (1996) introduces audiences to the “data thief,” a mysterious figure who travels through space and time in search of a key to the future of black culture.
This cinematic essay asks viewers to consider science fiction themes of alien abduction, estrangement, and genetic engineering as metaphors for the Pan-African experience of forced displacement, cultural alienation, and otherness.
Akomfrah's analysis is rooted in an exploration of the cultural works of Pan-African artists, such as funkmaster George Clinton and his Mothership Connection, Sun Ra's use of extraterrestrial iconography, and the very explicit connection drawn between these issues in the writings of black science fiction authors Samuel R. Delaney and Octavia Butler.
Intercut with images of Pan-African culture from different eras are interviews with black cultural figures, from musicians DJ Spooky, Goldie, and Derek May to George Clinton himself. Astronaut Dr. Bernard A. Harris Jr. describes his experiences as one of the first African-Americans in space, while Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols tells of her campaign for a greater role for African-Americans in NASA. Novelist Ismael Reed and cultural critics Greg Tate and Kodwo Eshun tease out the parallels between black life and science fiction, while Delaney and Butler discuss the motivations behind their choice of the genre to express ideas about the black experience.
Video still from John Akomfrah: The Last Angel of History. Photo. Courtesy of Icarus Films