• 27 November 2020
  • 12:00 – 1:00 pm
  • Zoom webinar

In his volume Against the Anthropocene, art historian T. J. Demos states 'environmental matters of concern are inextricable from social, political and economic forces’ describing the ways in which ‘environmental stresses can be both a driver and consequence of injustice and inequality – including poverty, racism, and neocolonial violence'. At a critical moment for global futures, our presentation will explore the interrelation of climate and racial injustices through a visual analysis of Black British artist John Akomfrah’s 2010 cine-essay The Nine Muses and its renewed significance in light of current global crises. Our close reading will be contextualised against Akomfrah’s earlier works produced on the Scottish islands, and with that of his peers, particularly Isaac Julien’s True North and Ingrid Pollard’s seminal series Pastoral Interludes.

Set in the Arctic, at the site of the 1989 Exxon oil disaster, The Nine Muses explores the histories of mass migration of the African diaspora to post-war Britain, creating a visual testament to the experience of migrant labourers across the industrial landscapes of England. Repurposing historical state footage from the BBC archives, Akomfrah creates a filmic montage by splicing it with newly shot film from Alaska. Akomfrah transforms the Arctic, subverting its traditional representation as a literal and symbolic white space, creating ‘an expedition about putting a black presence in all the ‘whiteness’ of the landscape’.

The Arctic undertakes two functions within The Nine Muses; firstly, it is a symbolic space describing whiteness, imbued with associations of sublimity and purity which can be traced to romantic aesthetics produced alongside British imperial exploration. Arctic imagery was a Victorian-era spectacle: panoramas were produced for exhibit while expedition voyages often featured crew members and artists whose depictions captured the British public imagination. Akomfrah employs these motifs to describe the experiences of migrants on arrival to the UK – the coldness, loneliness and hostile environment. Secondly, the Arctic represents a space of dispossession; from flag-waving races to the pole to current neo-colonial collusions for ownership, indigenous peoples and the global south are dispossessed of the territory and its agency for global futures. The Nine Muses reclaims the Arctic and offers a unique opportunity to think about the interrelation of race, landscape, and climate within the context of the slow violence of climate change, the rapid pathogens of Covid-19 and the continuing racial injustice towards black bodies.

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Image: John Akomfra, The Nine Muses. Digital image courtesy of Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo  

About the speakers

  • Headshot of Dr Jessica Carden

    Dr Jessica Carden is part of the curatorial duo Mother Tongue along with Dr Tiffany Boyle, which was formed in 2009. Together, they have collaboratively produced exhibitions, film programmes, discursive events and texts, most recently the 2019/2020 exhibition Transparency: Alberta Whittle and Hardeep Pandhal at Edinburgh Printmakers. Their research-led projects explore representation, migration, post-colonialism and diversity in the arts, having worked with organisations including the National Galleries of Scotland, Stills Gallery, Art Fund, MAP magazine, Glasgow International, GoMA Glasgow, British Council and the Hauser & Wirth Institute NY. Tiffany is based at the Glasgow School of Art and Jessica at King’s College London. 

  • Headshot of Dr Tiffany Boyle

    Dr Tiffany Boyle is part of the curatorial duo Mother Tongue along with Dr Jessica Carden, which was formed in 2009. Together, they have collaboratively produced exhibitions, film programmes, discursive events and texts, most recently the 2019/2020 exhibition Transparency: Alberta Whittle and Hardeep Pandhal at Edinburgh Printmakers. Their research-led projects explore representation, migration, post-colonialism and diversity in the arts, having worked with organisations including the National Galleries of Scotland, Stills Gallery, Art Fund, MAP magazine, Glasgow International, GoMA Glasgow, British Council and the Hauser & Wirth Institute NY. Tiffany is based at the Glasgow School of Art and Jessica at King’s College London.