British filmmaker John Akomfrah imagines the lives of a black man and woman who appear in a sixteenth-century drawing by German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer. In an exhibition which runs from 5 October - 8 November 2012 in London he makes them come to life.
The short film Peripeteia (2012), which is part of the exhibition, also takes as its starting point two drawings by the sixteenth century artist Albrecht Dürer. The portraits - one of a bearded black male, the other of a black woman wearing a close fitting bonnet - are among the earliest Western representations of black people, their existence now "lost to the winds of history". These elusive characters evolve into the film's ghostly protagonists, wandering in a contemporary moorland landscape, the past insinuating itself into the present. The painterly quality of Peripeteia has also been captured in a series of limited edition diptychs.
Read more about the film and see more picture at Shadow and Act.
In an interview with Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz (BRM,) John Akomfrah (JA) explains the film.
BRM The new film Peripeteia takes as its starting point two portraits by the sixteenth century artist Albrecht Dürer, which are believed to be one of the earliest Western representations of black people. How did you come across the drawings?
JA If I hadn’t gone into making films I would have gone into art history, which was one of my main obsessions when I was a child. I discovered these two particular draw¬ings about twenty years ago in a very famous collection called The Image of the Black in Western Art. It’s a five or six volume monograph, a huge monumental survey. So over the years I have become obsessed with this idea and the enigma of disappearance. These drawings are highly charged for me, almost totemic in what they mean: they are quintes¬sential examples of the violence of history. Because these two artifacts, which attest to an existence at some point, also suggest that we don’t live on a round planet but a flat one. Because everything about them looks like it went to the edge of the world and it fell off into oblivion. And I think that there are powerless and marginal figures like troubadours, religious groups, migrant communities, whose histories suggest that we live on a flat earth because their narratives and stories have just disappeared. So when you come across vestiges of that presence, one or two things that at the very least you try to achieve is an act of rescue. But it’s a complicated one since I am not by any means suggesting that this is the truth, but I am trying to construct the kind of wall of affinity in which my interests, subjectivity and desires are pinned on at the same time as their drawings. As I said I am not playing God, I can’t make them come back alive, but I can say they mean something to me, or that the idea of their existence suggests something to me. They do shock you. I’ve looked at them so many times, so intensively that I know almost everything that a face can tell you. I can tell you for instance how old she is, that one of her eyes is damaged, that she is in her pre-puberty and she is preoccupied with something. It looks like this is not necessarily how she would dress, she looks uncomfort¬able, out of her zone. Now it feels like their past and what we have done with them in the film have fused, and they have an identity for me. The act of making the film transforms both myself and the artifact.
BRM The characters wanderings in the landscape are juxtaposed with close ups from Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Why did you choose this Bosch painting?
JA For pretty much the same reasons as the drawings. It’s clear when you look very closely that the black figures have been made out of some acquaintances with black subjects, that there was an encounter. Whether or not it’s there to function as an allegory of excess and decline, for me this painting has always depicted a utopia, because itsuggests that the Adamic space of our emergence was multicultural!
BRM We were all together…
JA Yes, always together from the beginning. It might be an allegory of lust, a morality tale, but actually the materiality of the work suggests otherwise, and this is the fascinating thing about making images and paintings: they have a life that is independent of what they were supposed to say. It now exists as a record of a certain European encounter with the other. But there is still the mystery of who these people could have been? Where did Bosch meet them? What was their status? I always accepted them not as realistic representation but as real ones, they are not products of a fantasy.
BRM Could you talk about the possible life of the characters portrayed in Peripeteia? Who are they?
JA I suppose I want them to be pretty much like me. The most important thing is that they suggest an interior life. What could this interior life possibly be? This is when the archival photographs we finally used of their possible “origins” came in. The girl stands by a cliff and remembers two women who could be her mother and aunt, or they might be older people from the village she came from. But the fact is that if this young woman existed — and I think she did — and if she at any point in her life in Europe thought back — and I think she would have done so several times — and if she had imagined where she came from, these found photographs would have been a vision. We are giving them a plausible interiority and this inner chamber is populated by many possibilities: happiness, sadness, memories... And beyond that, once they acquire an ontology they are then free to move on.