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Smoking Dog Films/IWM

‘Mimesis: African Soldier’ at IWM


“Mimesis: African Soldier, a video installation at the Imperial War Museum in London by the British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah, gives poetic expression to the sense of rewards due yet withheld,” writes Maya Jaggi.“The seventy-five-minute, three-channel video installation draws on obscure film footage, including archival material from Senegal, Ghana, and Kenya, to build an astonishing composite of soldiers and laborers from Africa, Asia, and the Americas being signed up, feeding supply lines, and converging on fronts, from Flanders mud to jungle, desert, and veld.

Akomfrah, who had his first US retrospective recently at the New Museum in New York, splices the black-and-white documentary footage with staged tableaux of seven actors in distinctly colored colonial uniforms, wearing fezzes, kepis, or turbans. We see them solitary on ship decks, or wrenched from women in silent, depopulated villages, or wandering on overgrown battlefields where flags mark the fallen of many nationalities. A soundtrack with songs and whizzbangs hisses to simulate the terrifying release of mustard gas as yellowish smoke fills the screen. The artful placement of props, from displaced furniture and ownerless kit bags to archive photographs under flowing water, creates a powerful sense of rupture and desolation. Subtitled The Ambiguities of Colonial Disenchantment and signposted with titles such as “rude awakening,” and “letdown,” the new footage with actors becomes a little formulaic only toward the end.

The final, ironic footage is of colonial commanders embracing troops and pinning medals in a hollow masquerade of recognition. The film’s epigraph from Rosa Luxemburg, “Those who do not move do not notice their chains,” fits the mass mobilization of both the colonized and the carriers. Both Akomfrah’s new work and [William] Kentridge’s reminded me of something the late Nobel laureate Günter Grass, whose novel The Tin Drum (1959) countered German amnesia after World War II, said to me when I interviewed him in 2010 at his home in Lübeck: “Perhaps in time your country, England, will think about its colonial crimes… Everybody has to empty their own latrine.”

“We have obligations to the dead,” Akomfrah writes in a note on Mimesis, quoting the historian Carlo Ginzburg. Yet memorials are for the living, too.”

For more information, visit iwm.org.uk.

Category: Exhibition
IWM London
Lambeth Road,
London, United Kingdom