“John Akomfrah: Precarity,” Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, through August 26.
Against a quiet background of banjo picking, spirituals and jazz, the internationally acclaimed cinematographer, John Akomfrah (b. 1957), weaves a pictorial story of the South and New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century around Buddy Bolden, (1877-1931) a key figure in the development of jazz.
In 1900 Bolden was the most popular musician in New Orleans, known for his loud cornet and his improvisations. He was “King” Bolden and reigned until 1907, when he was committed to the Louisiana insane asylum. He left no known recordings and only a few grainy pictures, so this is as much a ghost story as it is a historical one; it is also about the South, especially New Orleans, the city that gave rise to jazz.
“Precarity,” meaning a precarious existence, which lacks predictability, job security, material or psychological welfare, is a three-channel video installation with color and sound. Through this medium Akomfrah quietly spins a film essay weaving the known facts about Bolden’s life with threads of archival material and actors in a costume drama. The facts include an attack by Bolden on his mother-in-law with a water pitcher, but since there was no serious injury, they sent him home. Bolden was out of control, however, and his mother had to return him to the authorities who institutionalized him.
Along the way we learn about the emergence of jazz and the legend of the musician who invented it in the city of New Orleans where musical freedom was possible despite the color of a man’s skin. Akomfrah was one of the artists picked by Trevor Schoonmaker when he was artistic director of “Prospect.4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp,” the 2017 city-wide triennial in New Orleans.
Over the past year Schoonmaker, the Nasher’s chief curator and Patsy and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art, has been dividing his time between Durham and New Orleans. At the opening he said he was glad to be back in one place and described “Precarity” as a poetic story with no clear linear narrative and, although it is “modestly paced, it is not slow.”
The video was commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art with funds provided by Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Family Fund for Acquisitions, the VIA Art Fund and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation and is now part of the Nasher’s permanent collection.
The film begins with swirling water, a constant theme throughout. Since the Mississippi River and New Orleans have a life-long connection we know the water is that river even when it slows to a gentle ripple as it covers newspaper articles, vintage photographs and cast-off stuff like a cornet. After a few panels, the screens go dark and a new title tells us John Bolden enters the asylum and is never seen in public again.
From that point to the conclusion, the artist uses historical documents, costume drama and music video to tell the story. In this second beginning the main character, a black man (Bolden) fastidiously dressed in a black suit, with white shirt, gray ascot and a black bowler hat, takes his place in the story. He carries a cornet in his right hand. His image is on the two outer screens, his back is to the viewer, a large white building — the asylum — is on the center screen. The viewers join the man as he faces a New Orleans' levee and canal, one of the many built over time to keep the Mississippi from overflowing onto the city’s streets.
Akomfrah recounts the story through vintage photographs of an industrial landscape, fields being picked by black workers, and factories where white women are making men’s collars. The newspaper clippings, old photos and discarded things immersed in the trickling water run through the entire film. I kept asking myself whether the water is destroying the past or cleansing it.
Two finely dressed black women round out the cast of characters. They never touch but, as viewers, we assume they are his wife and mother or mother-in-law.
And throughout it all there is the protagonist, sometimes dressed as a free man ready to use his musical instrument but at other times there he is in a tattered vest and shirt or bound in a straitjacket with a long hospital-like corridor in the background.
Interiors of small homes, decorated in dark velvets and heavy wood furniture, place the times as Victorian. A tiny wood building where Bolden and a small group of musicians are playing has a “Preservation Hall” sign on one wall, confirming again this is New Orleans. The background music is low, soulful, sad.
The video lasts 46 minutes and offers a different museum experience from the usual one, which, according to several studies, has timed the visitor as spending an average of 17 seconds with a painting. Give the film its full time. It is worth it.
After the show I spoke with the artist who is Ghanaian by birth and British since he was 4 years old. In 2017 he won the Artes Mundi Prize, the United Kingdom's most valuable award for contemporary art. He has shown his work in major museums including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Britain.
I asked whether his man in the bowler hat was borrowed from Magritte and he said, “Absolutely.” Magritte’s everyman interrogates history from solidity and from anonymity. He went on to say he has always wanted to explore the ideas and images coming out of the American South.
In the film the question becomes whether one accommodates to what is handed or does one fight it? He believes Bolden could not protect himself from the machine of racism and chose insanity as his only way out.