Before I say something about John Akomfrah, a filmmaker whose works are primarily shown in museums rather than movie theaters, let me say something about philosophy.
In the 1992 track "Don't Sweat the Technique," Rakim, the greatest rapper in the history of hip-hop, described the difference between a scientist and a philosopher: "Scientists try to solve the context / Philosophers are wondering what's next." The job of a man or a woman in a lab is to determine how the substances of something come together to produce a function or an effect. The man or woman in an armchair, on the other hand, wants to determine how the related elements of a given culture or moment will unfold in time. The philosopher is oriented to the future.
Not all philosophers would agree with Rakim's assessment of the role of the philosopher. The 19th-century German philosopher Georg Hegel, for example, thought that the lover of wisdom can understand only what has happened and not, like Cassandra of Greek mythology, what will happen. "The owl of Minerva," Hegel famously wrote in a late work, "only opens its wings and takes flight at dusk." (Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom.) This lateness condemns the philosopher to melancholy.
Walter Benjamin, an early-20th-century thinker, gives an assessment of the philosopher that is closer to Rakim's. Both thinkers are future-oriented, but whereas Rakim's philosopher faces the future, Benjamin's has his/her back turned to it. Benjamin's lover of wisdom is like the angel in the painting by artist Paul Klee. At once, it sees the catastrophes of history and is blown into the future by a storm called progress. "His eyes are staring [at the past]," wrote Benjamin in an unpublished essay, "and his mouth is open, and his wings spread. [He] perceives... one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet."
The philosopher of our times who is much like Benjamin's angel is John Akomfrah.
Born in Ghana, and presently based in the UK, Akomfrah philosophizes not with words or a hammer but with images. His career began in the early 1980s, when he and other black British artists formed the Black Audio Film Collective. Since that period, he has made 19 films, almost all of which concern the wreckage of human history from a black perspective.
Indeed, one of Akomfrah's most noted works is called The Last Angel of History, which he completed in 1996. It is one of the three films in Seattle Art Museum's exhibit John Akomfrah: Future History (showing through May 3). The Last Angel of History explores the history and sources of a black art movement called Afrofuturism. It features interviews with key Detroit techno producers (Juan Atkins, Derrick May), the funk futurist par excellence (George Clinton), a black astronaut who has spent 18 days in space (Bernard Harris), the theorist and producer Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), the culture critic Kodwo Eshun, and the science-fiction novelists Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany. (SAM will present this work in the Afrofuturist Living Room.)
If the Fanonian tradition of black critical theory is noted for appropriating the Hegelian master-and-slave dialectic and inserting it into the context of white masters and black slaves, then Afrofuturism rejects Hegel's infamous assertion that blacks exist outside of history. Hegel wrote: "Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature." This view of a stagnant or undeveloped black culture is far from extinct. It's still with us in the 21st century. If you are not a subject of history, then your life means very little.
For the Afrofuturists in Akomfrah's films, black humans are not outside of time but very much in it, and, as a consequence, are constantly mutating and evolving with changes in the culture and technology. "New words, sonic warfare, sonic Africa, Afrofuturism, digitized diaspora, analogue ecology... this is the land of African memory," says the narrator of The Last Angel of History.
But Akomfrah's philosophical works never search for an African purity, a black essence. He is well aware of the fact that black African culture has been transformed not only by its encounters with Western culture but also by cultures in South America and Asia. Blackness is more than just the double consciousness of W.E.B. Du Bois (black and white). It is instead a multitudinous mind, a mode of being in the world that has no clear borders and no defined beginning or end.
The most important Akomfrah work that will be screened during the exhibit is his 2015 Vertigo Sea. This stunning three-channel film connects capitalist exploitation of the fruits of the sea with the rise of monstrous jellyfish, the horrors of the slave trade, and the contemporary Africans crossing the dangerous Mediterranean Sea to enter the unknown: Fortress Europe. You will not get all that's going on in Vertigo Sea on the first or even second viewing. It is as dense and difficult as history itself. But you will feel the mind of a philosopher working through a variety of images to obtain a synthesis that can explain the present and our possible futures.