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Sunday, July 07, 2019

Exhibition review: John Akomfrah's 'Ballasts of Memory' @ Baltic, Gateshead


(Review by Russell/Image © Smoking Dogs Films courtesy of Lisson Gallery)

For the best part of four decades John Akomfrah has been a key creative figure in the world of film and video art. A founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective, Akomfrah's practice includes a continuing interest in the culture and representation of the black diaspora. At Baltic (Centre for Contemporary Art) in Gateshead an exhibition opened today (July 6) focussing on three of the artist's films. 

Ballasts of Memory comprises three works - Precarity (2017), The Unfinished Conversation (2012) and Psyche (2012) and it is Precarity which caught the eye - and ear - of BSH. The subject of Akomfrah's film (46 mins 3 secs) is the legendary jazz musician Charles 'Buddy' Bolden. The mythical figure of Bolden is seen across three screens in the three-channel HD video installation. There is a stillness at the heart of this portrait of Bolden. There is a noted absence of dialogue, the words we hear are the thoughts of a fabled, troubled genius. Fragments of Uptown, Storyville and Preservation Hall are seen in ghostly form, Bolden's distant horn occasionally rising above the constant presence of running water. The parallel is there - the breached levees of the Great Mississippi Flood (1927), the ongoing effects of Hurricane Katrina (2005). 
 
The images are lasting, composed, we see Bolden incarcerated in the State Insane Asylum in Jackson, Louisiana. Committed by the state, Bolden's schizophrenia, and the authorities' attitude towards an ill black man in early twentieth century America, resulted in the legendary jazz musician spending the last twenty-five years of his life in what we, in the early part of the twenty-first century, would call 'a secure unit'. 

Precarity was commissioned for the collection of the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, North Carolina. Baltic, Gateshead is hosting its European premiere. The exhibition continues until October 27.        
Russell 

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