Studio Visit: Larry Achiampong

“I guess what I’m trying to do is create a premise that connects to the present, or histories as we know them, to create a what if.” Larry Achiampong is inspired as much by postcolonial narratives and comic book story arcs as the aesthetics of Chris Marker and Cosplay, always in search of spaces where we can see ourselves differently.

Larry Achiampong’s flag is flying on the roof of Somerset House; a mysterious, colourful fragment that breaks the imperious grey skyline of the Strand just for a moment. Down the neoclassical corridors and stairwells and slick paved floors is the artist’s studio of the last two years—he’s been a resident here as part of Somerset House’s programme. His shared space is small and snug, littered with papers and slogans, and a huge collection of DVDs, mostly sci-fi and fantasy, a big source of inspiration for Achiampong in his own filmmaking.

I’m here at the start of a very busy week for the artist—the following day he has an opening at Jerwood Space, where he’s showing the first work in a new ongoing series, Relic 0, as part of 3-Phase; the night after he’s talking at the Tate, and then he’s off to New Orleans, where he’s part of the city-wide triennial, Prospect 4 (alongside artists like John Akomfrah, Kara Walker, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Alfredo Jaar and Yoko Ono to name but a few). When he returns to London he’s opening another solo exhibition, at Copperfield gallery, presenting his 2016 film Sunday’s Best—first shown at the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year—a visual poem ruminating on the complex relationship between faith, religion, colonialism and tribalism, shot in a church in Bethnal Green and featuring his mum. You wouldn’t know all this was going on though—Achiampong exudes an atmosphere of serenity and he’s humble, gentle. Such a demeanoir, I can’t help but reflect, often comes from people who have been through the roughest and toughest, but have come out shining.

Achiampong grew up in East London with a single mother who had fled to the UK from political turmoil in Ghana, one of five children. He knows the meaning of inner-city poverty, of racism and violence. He became a father at twenty-four—now thirty-three he has two children; his family appears in some of his films—but as the artist points out, his works, although layered with his own experiences, aren’t only about him, either in their meaning or in the creative process. He’s an enthusiastic collaborator, although he writes, directs and composes the music for his films, and has worked with David Blandy, and his partner Claire Barret, with voiceovers by Nephertiti Oboshie Schandorf and Hayleigh-Joy Rose, among others.

Over a cup of Japanese tea we had a chat about some of his recent work, influences and motivations—from the virtual landscapes of video games to Pan-Africanism, time-travel and tweed suits.

Can you tell me about the Hip Hop group, The Biters, you and David Blandy were doing for a time?

We were looking at this idea of how cultures fuse and what appropriation means within the gallery space, especially. We were jacking beats and taking visuals from all kinds of sources linked to our own heritages, and we toured across the UK, to Spike Island, Modern Art Oxford, Nottingham Contemporary, places like that. It was exciting, and there was also criticality to what we were doing, but we didn’t feel like that was really resonating. With time it felt like we were being invited as the entertainment or the light relief.

You then embarked on making a film together, Finding Fanon, that turned into a trilogy.

David didn’t know Fanon, in the same way I didn’t know Lacan’s work, and we came to the mutual understanding that we’d open the ideas up to one another. Our relationship was already about journeys, so we thought we’d continue down that route, as avatars in tweed suits.

And in those glasses—where did those come from?

They’re these retro steampunk style glasses I found online. We were bringing all kinds of references together that we were inspired by cinema, from Chris Marker’s La Jetée to the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, to The Parallax View, and thinking about how we could convey those, or bring them into a visual narrative.

Finding Fanon II takes place inside the virtual landscapes of Grand Theft Auto.

I realized that there are so many open, untapped areas of scenery you don’t even use in the game, you could walk across them for hours. The map itself is crazy massive. So we got two high spec PCs together, I’d have mine in London and David would have his in Brighton, and we’d meet up online and record our activity.

That also exposed some of the racial stereotyping that goes into the design of those games.

It was very easy to design David’s avatar, you know, straight white male. Mine was so difficult. I had to change my hair. That’s why my hair is shorter in the virtual version! That was in a way exposing the invisible walls of virtual spaces. People think there’s a limitless possibility, but then you have to think about who created those spaces. I don’t know if you’ve seen the sequel to Bladerunner… I’ve been noticing on Facebook people posting that it’s sexist and racist, but I’m like well have you seen the first one…!

How have these kinds of entrenched structures and attitudes affected you, from the perspective as a parent, and how you approach your work?

There has to be a realism to what you’re living. We have to dream, if we can’t dream or hope for our kids there’s almost no point to any of this. But it becomes equally tough when your son comes home and says I don’t like the brownness of my skin. That hits back to me saying to my mum, around a similar age, coming back from school, saying I wish I was white.

“There has to be a realism to what you’re living. We have to dream, if we can’t dream or hope for our kids there’s almost no point to any of this.”

And your daughter?

She’s three, she’ll be four next year. It’s hitting her through products, cartoons, Disney, white Princesses with blonde hair… when you have kids saying “I want Frozen” or “my hair is not nice”, this is part and parcel of those structures that create that environment, that are racist, and it’s deeply problematic. It positions one kind of people in one light and another type of people in another, that’s what we’re up against.

Your parents came to the UK from Ghana, my Dad came here from Sri Lanka, at turbulent times when both countries were coming out of colonial rule, and our heritage comes out of that legacy of colonialism, and the complexity of both racism and complicity with the colonial system. The film you presented at the Venice Biennale, Sunday’s Best, seems to address that.

Sunday’s Best brings together a separate personal story, through a voiceover, of the experience of being raised in various Ghanaian churches in lower working class community centres in London, and it’s this confrontation, this fusion of culture, but also reading through the language and between the lines that there’s this aspect of loss or relocating, picking up of remains that are the result of the Empire… I invited my Mum to come to evangelize at a church in Bethnal Green and she went for three hours. There are also audio recordings from masses at a local church in South London.

And now you’re going to present it back in London at Copperfield gallery which is in a former church—kind of perfect!

It is yeah! Will [Lunn, of Copperfield] saw the work at the Diaspora Pavilion at Venice and he told me how much it blew him away, something about it resonated with him even though he’s not religious at all. It’s a great opportunity to show the work in London.

“What if nationalism does succeed and borders are closed? How will the empire survive without all these resources and labour?”

And at Jerwood Space as part of 3-Phase you’re showing a new video work, Relic 0, and the flag you created that’s been flying on the roof of Somerset House.

I think similarly with Sunday’s Best, there were ideas that came up that I wanted to implement that couldn’t go into Finding Fanon. The whole process of working on that really encouraged me to want to continue to build ambitious projects, to work with a diverse workforce that includes women and people of colour, and to allow that to become part of the work itself.

With the Relic Traveller series I’d been thinking about this time in which nationalism has become a part of our popular culture, while at the same time the Pan-African Union have been developing a programme that will allow Africans to gain a universal passport to allow entry throughout and between the African nations. So while in the west borders are being closed, in Africa the opposite is happening, but that’s not being spoken about. That kind of fuelled my interest in bending the gaze and the western, white point of view. What if nationalism does succeed and borders are closed? How will the empire survive without all these resources and labour? Over time it becomes a relic. I was also thinking about the fact the British Empire has never apologized for the atrocities across the planet.

I didn’t even know colonialism was a bad thing until much later, at school it was kind of like “we got cricket and tea”, and that’s how it was spoken about!

I remember in secondary school the slave trade was talked about in terms of business, on a very capitalist level, not about trauma or turmoil, any of that. With this Relic Traveller series, the central component is the Relic Travellers themselves. The Pan-African Union is at a point of prosperity, harmony between cultures, nations and communities, and independence, at a point where the western model of civilization has collapsed by not confronting the colonial past that has benefitted societies.

What is their role?

Amongst the various new initiatives of the Union is the Relic Travellers’ Alliance, who use new technologies to fly on the edges of the planet’s atmosphere, through space, to get to places outside the Pan-African Union to pick up testimonies left by people from the Diaspora, stories of experiences of oppression and turmoil, and the belief is that by learning from those harrowing stories of trauma that the Pan-African Union will be in a better place to avoid future calamity. It’s only through the stories of the people themselves that they can avoid calamity.

Do you believe in human histories, then, that they can change the future?

Oh yeah. If we go back to the work of John Akomfrah for example, or Stuart Hall, there’s a massive potential there for creating an educational space. Having said that, there are always pitfalls to creating a work that you want to be dynamic. The big “d” I try to avoid is didactic. I guess what I’m trying to do is create a premise that connects to the present or histories as we know them; to create a what if.

Your children appear in part three of Finding Fanon, and the next Relic film features your son who is nine. How did you explain the project to him?

It comes back to the experience of seeing him become newly a victim to racism for the first time. His mother and myself, one of the first things we started to do was to buy more books that focussed on alternate aspects of histories, black history, female pioneers and so on. But it kept hitting home to me: what are you doing with your work, what does that mean? You can’t separate the personal from the professional or the professional from the political. I guess in a way for me he always had to be the Relic Traveller. Obviously he could have said no…

“You can’t separate the personal from the professional or the professional from the political.”

So you aren’t going to become a ruthless Jodorowsky type figure… 

Haha, no, no way! Along the way the only things I’d show to him was: hey, what do you think of putting on this helmet or uniform, like Mega Man, because he’s cosplayed as Mega Man before, and I’ve done shots with him wearing that. I think what was exciting to him was being able to run and climb and be in open fields. I just planned for us to go to some places and spend time there together. From the get-go, he was certainly the Relic Traveller, but years need to pass for the work to have existed for him, his sister, for young kids in general, to see this, for it to take effect.

Photography © Tim Smyth