What did I miss?: John Akomfrah's use of allegory

Lisa @Heritage_io
3 min readJul 11, 2021


Author’s own image (2021).

Last week I was formally introduced to John Akomfrah’s work in a gallery setting. Akomfrah an accomplished filmmaker and artist who explores memory, the implications of colonialism and temporality. Akomfrah

The Unintended Beauty of Disaster is currently on display at the Lisson Gallery until the end of July. In this exhibition, Akomfrah shares two video installations and two groups of photo-texts.

From top left to bottom right: “The Monuments of Being” Series No. Nine 2021"; “My Body Is The Monument 2021"; “Our Skin Is The Monument 2021”; “We Are The Proof 2021” — artworks by John Akomfrah, Author’s own image (2021).

For both video installations, Akomfrah packed a lot into such a short space of time. In Four Nocturnes 2019, I felt there was a consistent momentum throughout the piece. Even when a shot focused on a photograph submerged in water for example. The changing pace of the soundscape and the physical movement of the herd of elephants and the group of people carrying checkered laundry bags reinforces this. And also raises the question of where exactly are the elephants and group of people going? Are these separate but aligned journeys in response to environmental degradation? How has past exploitation of people, animals and land affected our present? Here the use of archive material in the form of photographs was particularly poignant. For instance, there were depictions of the exploitative labour for palm oil and rubber and the romantic notion of European game hunting on the African continent. Hence, the inextricable links with the past connect with the present and ultimately the future. For example, imperialism and the rise of multinational corporations is one connection.

Has the depletion of access to natural resources such as water and shelter diminished to such a level that our only hope is to embark on a journey? I guess the question rests on this depends on where this journey is leading to…

The slight changes in between scenes and the use of the three channels meant I was bound to miss some of the nuances behind Akomfrah’s allegories. Akomfrah offers an insight into one of these nuances in this Frieze interview:

‘Four Nocturnes, I looked at hundreds of images of landscapes in which colonial figures supervise fields cultivated by elephants and human beings. You might assume the elephant isn’t really doing very much but, actually, most of the time, the human is sitting on an elephant who is, in fact, doing the work. The post-cinematic allows us to reconfigure the cluster of forces, ontologies and agencies at work in a given landscape in a way that wouldn’t make sense in the cinematic’ (Frieze, 2020).

However, this was a film I would gladly re-watch to catch those moments I may have missed the first time around.



Lisa @Heritage_io

Hi I’m Lisa | Based in Brum, UK | Writer | Blogging to challenge the idea that history, art, culture and heritage is irrelevant| Twitter & IG: @heritage_io