The fragmentary character of memory

John Akomfrah's 'The Nine Muses' obliquely tells the history of migration to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.

Still from 'The Nine Muses.'

Director John Akomfrah’s new film, “The Nine Muses,” continues the powerful cine-cultural tradition inaugurated by the Black Audio Film Collective in Britain in the early 1980s. Similarly to his earlier films, Akomfrah handles archival footage with a profound sensitivity; he does not interrogate the history of migration through the archive, nor pore over ‘celluloid fossils,’ rather, as cultural critic Kodwo Eshun has suggested, Akomfrah delicately weaves an archival assemblage, with the care of “… midwives handling an archival fragment as tenderly as if it were a premature infant.”

Akomfrah’s film is essayistic, poetic; it obliquely tells the history of migration to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s: archival material and migrant testimonies are cut with contemporary footage filmed in the vast frozen landscapes of Alaska. Inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, and structured by the nine muses, who each form a cinematic chapter, Akomfrah’s film dreamily journeys through ice and hot lava, from the steamy depths of factories to the sparse, harsh frozen deserts of the contemporary.

The trope of the wanderer, the journeyman, ever moving, back turned to the geography of the already-traversed past, is deftly explored in Akomfrah’s film. Each ‘scene’ of contemporary Alaska is marked by a figure, back turned to the camera, looking out onto the horizon. Jonathan Romney comments that perhaps these breathtaking images, remarkable for their stillness and coldness, ’embody an idea of Absolute North’, a ‘compassless exile that Britain might resemble to immigrants from warmer places’. Romney’s comment reminds me of the work of Achille Mbembe, who so powerfully plots Africa’s political history onto a compass, for what was North — skyward, upwards, godly — and what resided south — deep in the underground, occupied different universes for Mbembe. He wrote of Johannesburg: “… [it is] a metropolis that pokes and thunders at the sky while its reason for being there is thoroughly subterranean,” pointing toward the hundreds of thousands of black miners who kept the city prospering and growing.

In a series of images from The Nine Muses, a similar kind of geography can be traced. Akomfrah cuts from the white of Absolute North, to archival footage of black workers in Britain working with molten metals, hot red lava pouring into buckets and spitting angry sparks at workers. Like they’d punctured the earth’s crust, Akomfrah seems to be building upon Mbembe’s idea, that the surface exists thanks to those who toil beneath; heat at the centre emanating outwards to an eventually cooled and pristine crust. The words ‘a cold coming we had it’ by TS Eliot breathe onto the screen.

And to these images, so poetic, suggestive, Akomfrah mixes a dazzling, often overwhelming soundtrack of literary sources. Passages from “Paradise Lost,” “The Odyssey,” “Richard II,” Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake,” Beckett’s “Molloy” and Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood,” amongst many more. Akomfrah mines from these — a literary history of myth and journey — monologues and speeches that speak to the migrant experience; from Shakespeare’s sonnett; “how heavy do I journey on the way/ When what I seek, my weary travel’s end”, to Richard’s speech “Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs/ Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes/ Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth”.

Akomfrah portrays migration both as literal reality — using the archive as testimony, proof, and migration as myth, for he is suggesting that ‘stories usually seen through the lens of post colonialism could as easily be viewed through the lens of mythic history’. Akomfrah’s essayistic form, weblike, extends outward in multiple ways, telling a powerfully tangible story of migration through the archive, while simultaneously, like a palimpsest, another narrative plays out, linking migration to mythical histories. For in the film itself, Akomfrah shows the form’s own ancestry: the muses, the sources of creativity are born of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory’s affair with Zeus, and so all nine share a filial relation with memory; memory and creativity are genetically linked in Akomfrah’s invocation of Greek myth. In this way again, the form itself reflects the fragmentary character of memory, mirroring its ambiguous nature. “Handsworth Songs,” the BAFC’s brilliant early film (viewable here) is also concerned with memory; how it is always a matter of multiple parts than a completeness, and it is always a construction of the imagination.

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