Ends of the Earth

Jeremy Harding

  • Mimesis: African Soldier by John Akomfrah
    Imperial War Museum, until 31 March

Between them France and Britain had more than 450 million imperial subjects at the start of World War One. Germany, despite the geographical size of its African acquisitions, had fewer than 20 million. All three empires threw colonial manpower into the conflict, in Africa, Anatolia, the Middle East and Europe. In Britain, as in Germany, there was strong resistance to the idea of African contingents bearing arms on European soil. Churchill was enraged by what he saw as the stupidity of this position. He was not alone. Charles Darnley Stuart Stephens, who had served in the Lagos police and commanded a battalion of British Nigerians some forty years earlier, wrote in the English Review in 1916 recommending the deployment of armed African regiments. He favoured Nigerians for ‘daredevil charges into German trenches’ and Sudanese for their demeanour: ‘big, lusty coal-black devils … whose advent would not be regarded by the Boches as a pleasing omen of more to come of the same sort’.

By the turn of the century, as David Olusoga explained in The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire (2014), Britain had already sorted its Indian subjects into martial races (mostly hardy mountain types from the Punjab and Nepal) and effeminate races (typically people of the plateau and the ‘soporific’ plain). This new declension of race theory was one of the consequences of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which led to an overhaul of the Indian army and an ethnography to justify it. Similar ideas about vigorous and slovenly peoples caught on quickly in colonial Africa. Zulus were self-evidently ‘martial’, even though they loafed around with their cattle; Hausa and Fulani in Nigeria were, in the words of Stuart Stephens, ‘bonny fechters’. But Churchill and his followers failed to win their case. Too many British top brass and war-gamers felt that an African infantryman was no match for the toy soldiers they had led to victory in the nursery: Africans would scurry from the Hun. There were also British humanitarians, Olusoga tells us, who worried about the fate of African conscripts in any struggle between white men in the unforgiving north. Above all there was the fear that racial hierarchies might be jeopardised in the colonies when the war ended. White South African settlers were adamant about this. It was madness, in their view, to train Africans in the use of firearms. Instead, the British threw Indian army regiments into the fray and used black Africans as non-combatant labour.

France set aside its own misgivings about colonial troops: its population was very much lower than Germany’s and its birth rate in decline. In the 1850s the French had put together the tirailleurs sénégalais as African auxiliaries, more or less coerced into service under the French flag. Swollen by pacification campaigns, the tirailleurs subdued large swathes of Africa, including Madagascar and Morocco. (They were drawn from all of France’s West African holdings, not just modern-day Senegal.) The idea of turning them into a ‘force noire’ for the European theatre was first put forward by General Charles Mangin a few years before the outbreak of war. Like Stuart Stephens, Mangin had a fierce sense of ‘les races guerrières’, endless ranks of ‘bonny fechters’ who would acquit themselves well.

About 140,000 tirailleurs fought in Europe and the Dardanelles, with similar numbers of North African soldiers and mixed colonial and metropolitan regiments (zouaves and others). In 1919 many African soldiers were transformed into ‘whites’ and sent east to harry the Bolsheviks. There is no consensus on French African casualties in Europe though historians are now producing figures that average out at around 40,000. At least six million people of non-European origin – Indians, Arabs, Africans, West Indians, East and South-East Asians (and 200,000 African Americans after 1917) – served on or near the battle lines, in and beyond Europe, from Flanders to Damaraland in southern Africa, fetching, carrying and fighting, as the three major European powers mortgaged their empires on the Western Front. Germany was scandalised by the deployment of ‘barbarians’ in Europe, both at the time and later. When the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, Hitler gave orders to destroy a statue of Mangin in the seventh arrondissement.

A performance piece by William Kentridge, The Head and the Load, which premiered at Tate Modern in July, is now showing at the Armory in New York (until 15 December). It tells the story of African porters serving the Great Powers as they fought it out in their respective African colonies; in one episode, droves of porters drag boats through the jungle to the shores of Lake Tanganyika for a naval confrontation between the Germans and the British. (Germany’s African colonies were seized at the Treaty of Versailles, and became League of Nations mandates in 1920.) Africans fighting and labouring in Europe were not Kentridge’s subject: the art-commissioning body for the World War One centenary gave the job to John Akomfrah, whose three-screen installation, Mimesis: African Soldier, is on show at the Imperial War Museum in London.

Akomfrah, born in Ghana in 1957 and famous for his video/sound explorations of migration (mostly forced migrations, including slavery), the European-African encounter and the invention of race, is probably the only British artist with the credentials, and the imaginative will, to monumentalise the colonised peoples who toiled and died for their imperial masters in Europe: the reluctant, the enthusiastic, and the quickly disabused. At 75 minutes, Mimesis is an angular, elliptical homage to these men, a fusion of highly wrought historical documentary and cryptic evocations of lived experience, using actors (always silent), archive film and photographs, ethnographic sound recordings, new filmed material – with and without the actors – and a soundtrack by the composer Trevor Mathison. This is vintage Akomfrah, building on the techniques that fascinated him in the 1980s as a founder member of the Black Audio Film Collective: quick changes in register, uninhibited longueurs, unsettling shifts from the brutal, self-explanatory quality of battle footage to a lustrous theatricality, as costumed actors wander through sets dressed with war paraphernalia or rehearse slow, understated farewells in African family compounds (shot in Kenya).

Clip from Mimesis

Akomfrah’s archive sequences are interspersed with curious natures mortes, organised and lit with the care of a painter, sometimes disposed in the great outdoors as shimmering contradictions: still lifes in landscape. The bits and pieces he combines (a bugle, say, and an infantryman’s shovel, or a framed photograph of an African veteran) are chosen with an eye for allegory. They might be set out on a stretch of coastline with audible sea swell, or submerged in a stream, where running water agitates their shapes. They test our nerve and try our patience, but just as we begin to worry that an emblematic tableau is about to break the restless grandeur of the piece as a whole, we’re pulled back into gripping archive footage: black stevedores in Europe, for instance, unloading colonial produce, which has followed in their wake and will now make its way, on the back of their labour, to the front lines.

In Mimesis we could almost be watching three players – a pioneering documentary maker, a tenacious archive researcher and an avant-garde auteur – at a card table, while a fourth, Akomfrah the wardrobe stylist, waits to be dealt in. Mimesis is not his only work to go to town on period costume (in this case the uniforms of African soldiers). Tropikos (2014), in which Africans and Europeans explore the nature of ‘the other’, is set in the 16th century; Auto da Fé (2016) reflects on migration and religious persecution across four centuries. Embroidered tunics, tricorn hats and cotton bonnets have an elaborate place in these stylised reconstructions, even though it would have been less intrusive to dress the cast in anachronistic, modern-day outfits, closing the distance between a ‘then’ and a ‘now’. But the use of wardrobe in Mimesis and Akomfrah’s other pieces allows us to think about the appeal of TV period drama, whose characters inhabit another time, sometimes another continent. Brazilian telenovela slavery romances like Escrava Isaura or Sinhá Moça are as relevant here as Jane Austen adaptations or The Crown. Wardrobe semaphore fascinates Akomfrah, but he wants to complicate the signals, using costume as a way of asking what we think we’re up to when we make elegant descriptions of the past. In Mimesis, colonial uniforms are all the more striking for being set beside the grainy overcoats and khakis of the soldiers in his archive material. This historical footage is sometimes slowed up, tinted, or restored to remove scratches. But it never puts colour back into the cheeks of the dead: Peter Jackson’s dazzling transformation of the monochrome archive in They Shall Not Grow Old could not be further from Akomfrah’s mind. His actors warn us that remembrance comes in many guises, some of them unreliable. (He hints, too, at the allure of parade uniforms, which may have been a source of pride to new regulars before they exchanged them for combat dress.)

The silent ‘characters’ in Mimesis are nearly always distanced, and intent on laying their operations bare (‘I am an actor, that is a camera’). Yet once we’re allowed to observe their faces at close quarters they exercise a magnetic pull on our sympathy. These animated masks, beautifully directed and shot, are at their most compelling when they are motionless, almost transparent, their eyes like windows onto darkened rooms. Psyche (2012), Akomfrah’s nine-minute homage to his cinematic influences, includes classic close-ups of civilians on the Odessa steps from Battleship Potemkin and the face of Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. ‘From the face,’ one of the epigraphs in Psyche reads, ‘will come the truth of the event.’ But because the haunting portraits in Mimesis are always of colonial subjects, the ‘truth’ of the war seems to mutate under their gaze and confront us with new questions. What did it mean to serve in a distant conflict between rival European masters? Or to come away, if you lived through it, knowing the superior race could die in large numbers? What account would survivors take back to their families in the outposts of exhausted empires? What does the war have to say to modern minorities? Akomfrah’s actors – mostly under fifty, all black – have one eye on the present, and anti-immigration policy in the Global North, with its purges and expulsions, including people from the Caribbean who settled in the UK more than half a century ago.

Akomfrah likes to get to grips with ‘archive science’, as the credits in his pieces refer to it. He and his fellow researchers at Smoking Dogs, his production company, talk of getting the archive to ‘fess up’, encouraging it to speak intelligibly and reveal secrets it didn’t know it was keeping. Mimesis includes rare footage of colonial recruits waiting to be issued with uniforms, colonial workers felling a birch forest, and any number of scenes of non-whites off duty – dancing, singing and playing instruments. The archive, it turns out, offers an abundance of happy colonials – African, Vietnamese, Chinese, Sikh – given to simple pleasures. Tommy Atkins could not have blacked up and done better. Imitation, as the title of the piece suggests, is the key both to mastery and misunderstanding. The behaviour of non-whites at the front makes sense only when they mimic a set of platitudes cherished by whites. For all races, soldiering is founded on imitation (‘do as I do’) and obedience (‘do as I say’), but when Akomfrah’s characters repeatedly salute the camera, they are blank; we sense a mixture of fatigue and insubordination – and the stirrings of anti-colonial sentiment – in these impersonations of respect (Kentridge’s performers have a similar routine with the salute in The Head and the Load). More broadly, in Akomfrah’s view, the commemoration of war is always mimetic, as one anniversary sets a benchmark for the next. Mimesis itself, he has said, is an ‘imitation of history’.

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Vertigo Sea (2015), another of Akomfrah’s three-screen installations, is showing at The Store X, 180 Strand (until 9 December). Here imitation is a device rather than a theme: the piece draws liberally on the BBC Natural History Unit’s film archive, marine life especially, and matches it with original filmed sequences, shot by the South African cinematographer Dewald Aukema. Images of the ‘living world’ cascade towards us; without the mediating voice of a BBC presenter, ‘nature’ appears to be speaking for itself in long, ecstatic bursts. But we soon discover that the animal archive has been misappropriated (wonderfully, to my mind) and we’re thinking about human migration, mass uprooting and resettlement; race, difference and assimilation; the threat posed by Homo sapiens to itself and other species. The soundtrack – with music by Mathison and recorded voices weaving in and out – introduces a niggling human presence into the BBC’s charismatic underwater sequences and careful stagings of empty wilderness.

Clip from Vertigo Sea

The frenzy of archive material is punctuated by still lifes: sextants, clocks, upturned chairs and assorted flotsam arranged on patches of rocky shoreline. Actors appear at intervals: often inquisitive figures facing out to sea with their backs towards their own cultures (and the viewer). ‘Discovery’, we come to understand, was not a uniquely European ambition: Africans have always had a fascination with worlds beyond their own. The lighthouse, a recurring image in Vertigo Sea, reminds us of the mariner’s return, and the migrant’s sighting of the promised land. But we also encounter humans in the thick of things, a long way from home, churned around within the natural order as they seldom are in TV nature programmes. Documentary footage shows men shooting polar bears on the ice and butchering whales. Newsreel of a burning offshore oil rig evokes ‘The Try-Works’, a prophetic chapter in Moby-Dick in which the furnaces are stoked on the deck of the Pequod and the catch is rendered for human consumption: the ship becomes a glowing industrial works in the middle of a pristine ocean.

Akomfrah’s humans are no less ruthless in the pursuit of their own kind than they are in the predation of other species. In a brief, powerful reconstruction of the Middle Passage, slaves are tossed into the Atlantic. We see sketchy archive footage of Argentina under the junta in the 1970s: a helicopter reminds us that detainees were flown out beyond the coast and ejected into the same ocean. In a few seconds of audio, we hear an officer giving orders for a round-up in ‘the casbah’: we’re in North Africa in 1957, as French paramilitaries prosecute the Battle of Algiers. These ferocious struggles, in which humans turn on one another and the rest of nature, are glossed by readings from Melville, Nietzsche, Virginia Woolf, Derek Walcott (‘then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors’) and Heathcote Williams (Whale Nation, 1988). The spoken texts play in and out of the deafening audio mix as whales breach, icecaps melt, huge shoals of fish migrate from screen to screen and flocks of birds darken the waves.

The stakes are high, not just because of the pace and frequency with which human activity is assimilated to the non-human, but because the result is totalising: the montage achieves an uncanny homogeneity, as if the piece were made in a single medium, like a cast-metal sculpture or a totemic object hewn from a tree. There are moments when it seems to have been conjured entirely from water. Vertigo Sea has the unity, and the vulgarity, of a creation myth, though we also read it as an epic story of annihilation and loss. Akomfrah has always been happy with the idea of art as ‘threnody’ (his word), and it’s not such a great step from lamentation to an appreciation of beauty in death and destruction. The question is whether we’re prepared to go along with him. I find I am; perhaps to the ends of the earth, and as far as I can tell, that’s where he wants to take us.

Clip from Handsworth Songs

It pays, after his ‘tales from the aquatic sublime’ to revisit the early Akomfrah. In particular Handsworth Songs (1986), the documentary he made with the Black Audio Film Collective during the 1985 riots in Birmingham, on display in the permanent collection at Tate Britain. Handsworth Songs was well received at the time, though not everyone liked the elusive modernist style of exposition, or the brusque intrusions of archive footage, or Akomfrah’s moody set pieces contrived in the studio. Salman Rushdie famously said it was ‘no good’. He took against its self-conscious interest in form – its own, and documentary form in general. Where were the lively vox pops in Handsworth Songs that could tell us what was ‘really’ going on and what people ‘really’ thought? Rushdie had earned his reputation as a weaver of tales: his characters led us along the elegant twists and turns of his plots. But Akomfrah was wary of ‘character’. He was also out of sorts with the cultural restoration of the Thatcher era, which saw a revival of narrative fiction, realist or magic realist, with a beginning, a middle and an end, disposed in variously artful ways. Thirty-five years on, Handsworth Songs looks like a model of documentary filmmaking in the face of adversity. Akomfrah’s signature is already clear in his idiosyncratic studio takes; he warns us that the rules of fly-on-the-wall reportage, or didactic journalism, no longer apply. How would an ‘impartial’ BBC Panorama on the Birmingham riots stand up now against Handsworth Songs? Akomfrah appeared to know the answer when he took his film crew up to Birmingham in 1985 on a wing and a prayer. There was no reason to play it safe at the time, when his work was deliberately opaque and challenging, but there are reasons to be careful now, as he goes for the big, accessible story that basks in the power of cinema.