- The Nine Muses dir. by John Akomfrah
“Memory is The Engine by which the souls of folk, not only black folk, acquire a value and an importance and a normality,” British director John Akomfrah states in the short documentary Chiasmus, accompanying the DVD of his amazing work The Nine Muses. Without doubt, since the 1980s John Akomfrah, cofounder of the legendary Black Audio Film Collective and director of the seminal Handsworth Songs (1986), has been one of the most inspiring and innovative British filmmakers to date. His film The Nine Muses (2010) is an artistic intervention into the visual archive of migration: a poetic cine-essay about cultural memory departing from the Black Diaspora in the British Midlands. Migration, sidelined and marginalised in official narrative, is revisited through the lens of Homer’s Odyssey. Recasting Homer’s epic, the film is divided into nine chapters each dedicated to one of the nine muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, in Greek mythology the personification of memory. The film’s stunningly beautiful visual style takes us miles away from the likes of social-realist filmmaking: contemplative long shots filmed on location in Alaska are intertwined with documentary footage Akomfrah was able to excavate from British television archives. In the artistic process of filmmaking this material is then dislocated and recontextualised. In the same vein as Derek [End Page 218] Walcott’s allusion to Dante in Omeros, another remediation of Homer, The Nine Muses includes a variety of intermedial references from Schubert’s Winterreise to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
On the soundtrack quotations by Nietzsche, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Joyce, Emily Dickinson, Cummings, and Beckett alternate with music and performances by Paul Robeson, Arvo Pärt, Leontyne Price, Handel, and the haunting sounds composed by Trevor Mathison, Akomfrah’s long-term collaborator. This assemblage of images and sounds, expressing a struggle between “the official and the unofficial” (Akomfrah), foregrounds the dialectics of the archive: by looking for traces of a black presence in the archive, it revives lost moments that have been sidelined or forgotten in cultural memory. In freeing the archival footage from its “voice-of-God” commentary so prevalent in newsreels and conventional documentaries, the images are (at least partly) liberated from the objectifying gaze on migrants. At the same time, Akomfrah adds a universal dimension to the diasporic experience through the soundtrack echoing canonized authors read by standard English voices. Here we find a new take on the practice of reworking of the archive, which was initiated in early works such as Signs of Empire or Handsworth Songs. Yet, where Handsworth Songs also sets out to deconstruct the dominant media representation of black Britons in order to carve out discursive spaces for black British memory, the project of The Nine Muses readdresses the notion of the archive as a storehouse of traces from the past, as visible evidence of a black presence, and as a system of power that has been trying to suppress or delete these moments of being and becoming.
Akomfrah reconceptualizes ideas and aesthetic strategies developed in his earlier films, such as the use of digital images and of color film in The Last Angel of History (1995), in which he examines Afrofuturism and its impact on popular culture, or the use of space and memory in The Genome Chronicles (2008), a mediation on the painter Donald Rodney exploring questions of remembrance and mourning. In common with Isaac Julien, whose True North is echoed in The Nine Muses, Akomfrah has contextualized his films on the art circuit: Signs of Empire and Handsworth Songs, exhibited at the Documenta XI twenty-five years after its premiere, have been included in Tate Britain’s permanent collection. The critically acclaimed and prize-winning Nine Muses has not only entered the international festival circuit (Sundance) and received a theatrical release in the United Kingdom, it also has a twin sibling: the installation Mnemosyne, a shorter version of The Nine Muses, which circulates in the art context.
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