John Akomfrah: “If there is a problem with hybridity, for me, it is that it participates in this hierarchization of the world”

It's still C&10 and we retrieved another treasure from our archive: a conversation between John Akomfrah and Raimi Gbadamosi on the concept of hybridity - just on time with the opening of Akomfrah's first immersive exhibition in Germany.

John Akomfrah: “If there is a problem with hybridity, for me, it is that it participates in this hierarchization of the world”

John Akomfrah, The Last Angel of History, Black Audio Film Collective © 1995.


Raimi Gbadamosi: Like you, Stuart Hall has been very important in helping form ideas about the self. I was asked recently to be part of a discussion around Stuart Hall’s notion about the arts in Britain and I think it’s called the fourth wave. It is in his essay, “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain: Moments In Post-War History” where he talks about different waves of artists that emerge and why they make the kind of work that they make. My response at the time was that we’d reached a point where we would have to start reconsidering for ourselves how we see ourselves. The theorization of the self in Britain is hinged on multiple histories. And actually it’s interesting being here in South Africa: I look at it and think, they have to go through all the things that we went through in Britain in order to make sense of the world that they’re creating for themselves. However we in Britain are at a different point. How come this fourth wave is not as assertive as it’s expected to be?

John Akomfrah: There is a tendency—which I notice more and more in Britain—of a kind of national chauvinism that elevates the status of the debate around identity in political and cultural terms into something of an exception. It’s very common to hear people say “Oh, well, in England we’ve really advanced these debates, unlike some of our other European counterparts for instance.” What gets forgotten is that this debate is four centuries old in Britain. And by that I mean not simply the trans-Atlantic trade: the (European) encounter with the west African coast in the 1490s meant that we’ve been discussing—those of us of African descent—with Europe this question of location and its connection with identity for four centuries. One cannot expect Ukraine or Romania to have exactly the same kind of debate, because they don’t have four centuries of that kind of discussion between them and the African continent.

I think the question of history, of historicity, needs to be addressed in order to partly understand this now. As soon as one invokes the question of history or the notion of historicity, the fourth wave discussion makes a certain kind of sense, and the sense it makes for me is this: we are saying in Britain that there have been “afro-modernist” waves, interventions in the art world, and this can be broken down generationally, culturally and historically. I agree with that, I agree that there is a difference between artists such as Frank Bowling, Donald Rodney and Chris Ofili. What I don’t want to do is to elevate those differences into qualitative or what I might call teleological ones whereby Ofili becomes the apex of a development in which Bowling is merely a junior.
I can see what the fourth wave debate is trying to do; it is trying to periodize, it is trying to introduce the question or process both historical and otherwise. I don’t agree with it, especially if it starts to seem as if what we’re saying is that one wave is “aesthetically or politically inferior to the other.” In other words it’s very difficult to hang on to the sense of development and process and resist the temptation to also have this hierarchy of value. It is the hierarchy of value that I dispute where it is implied.

John Akomfrah, The Last Angel of History, Black Audio Film Collective © 1995.

R.G.: I think you are voicing some of my discontent quite clearly, because a hierarchy is implied, and a hierarchy to a certain extent is stated. I understand that each wave, so to speak, acquires greater agency through the length of time that one is within this post-colonial space. Each generation acquires greater confidence. As I pointed out before your mooting, those hierarchies lead to problems. It means that a particular set of individuals can never quite reach this point of satisfaction, and one would expect that the next generation of artists after Ofili, they (artists of Ofili’s generation) are going to be the ones being pointed to. I think this is problematic. These are the kinds of problems that for me are built-in with issues of hybridity that I have written about. Pointing out that hybridity, as an idea, has had its moment, and I think one could look back in history—and you’ve already sort of alluded to history—as it allows us to think about change in a particular way, over a length of time so we’re not necessarily a singular set of people bringing about change. It happens because change has to happen, to a certain extent. There is a way “the wave” and “hybridity” merge together in a subtle fashion; that the longer the time the “colonial” spends in the mother country (to use those rather overloaded terms) the more they acquire an ability to speak. That, I think, is one of the lingering problems, for me amongst others, and we will get to the others about questions of hybridity in just a moment. The reason why I am linking the two is that one cannot but see that it is longevity that allows the fourth wave to emerge.

J.A.: I don’t share your disquiet with the notion of hybridity. I understand why that disquiet is there because I’ve tried over the last decade or so to not align my thinking directly with what one might call the “theorists of hybridity”. If there is a problem with hybridity, for me, it is that it participates in this hierarchization of the world in which a certain kind of encounter is elevated above others and made into the equivalent of a sort of holy union.
If you take the West African coast, it is clear to me that one cannot understand it without some resort to the notion of the hybrid. These are hybrid spaces in which Akans mix with Ga people. My name, for instance, is supposed to be Ga but it only means something in Akan, and is completely meaningless in Ga. In other words, the notion that somehow certain parts of the world are foreign to the hybrid seems to me to be wrong. I think what we have had all along are overlapping definitions of the hybrid. There is nowhere in which anyone exists in a pure state, as a kind of uncontaminated whole. So for me, the problem is not the concept but rather the overly prescriptive and—dare I say it—enthusiastically Hegelian manner in which it is deployed to speak of a metropolitan cosmopolitanism.
What I am more interested in is the notion of the hyphen. How hyphens come about, which seems to me to be much more suggestive, and seems to escape some of the raciological trappings of hybridity. It is those raciological trappings that I can sense you have a certain discomfort with. I do too, but I don’t share it because I don’t believe quite as much in the explanatory power of hybridity as I did maybe twenty years ago.

R.G.: You see the hyphen is fascinating. When I think of the place where the hyphen is used the most, in the United States, it still carries a particular code of entitlement and power. Some people do not have to hyphenate themselves, others do. And so, yes, while the hyphen provides an alternative to the hybrid, it also points to the fact that you are what you attach yourself to. The hyphen in this case does become a form of attachment, rather than it being about ownership.
I share with you the opinion that the question of race, to do with hybridity, is one that bothered me the most. It is however interesting to listen to you speak about the western coast of Africa and the idea of the hybrid. I’ll get back to you about that. But the thing is, when the hybrid is evoked the most often, it is when the West African coast—just to stick to one part of Africa—finds itself in contact with the Western world. That is, when hybridity is actually evoked; otherwise people talk about syncretism for instance, or probably just an easier term to use with regards to the way that cultures come into contact with each other and new things emerge. It is syncretic rather than it being hybridized.
As I said, I would get back to the issue of West Africa. I agree with you; there is this thing about different parts of that coast which just simply exist and where people come into contact and things seem easy. Recently, I was with a group of people from Sierra Leone who have Yoruba names. These are just their names, that’s what it is. I met someone from Ghana who thought I was Ghanaian because my name is Gbadamosi and I just see it as a Yoruba name. But he said: No, there are lots of Gbadamosis in Ghana. I think that is about human existence. It is very difficult for me not to engage with hierarchies when we start discussing the hybrid because somebody has to declare this form, this new accepted form, as being hybrid, and that bothers me.

J.A.: I’ve turned circles around this notion of the hybrid, ever since the 1980s. If we remove it from the field of identity politics for the moment and apply it to the question of aesthetics, the question of hybridity has been very important for us. It implies that we haven’t necessarily had to swear allegiance, for instance, to the existing set of genres and modes of address and cultural practices which were available to us. People would endlessly ask me, do you make art or cinema? Are you doing documentaries or feature films? Where is the place of the historical in these works, which clearly flirt with notions of historicity, but which also seamlessly attempt to weave them with fictional scenarios?
I would routinely say that we have a kind of agnostic relationship to a number of these genres. I can’t swear full allegiance, let’s say, to the documentary because most of the documentaries in their origins—because the modes of address that they set up—have not been flattering to people of African descent. I have no reason, unlike some of my European counterparts, to feel that the history of the documentary is one that I feel kinship with. We all know and we’ve all talked over the years about the racism of some of the early founders, D.W. Griffiths and so on. My point is this: since the history of the forms that I work with are already “contaminated”, an appeal to the hybrid becomes both the defining gesture as well as the conditions of existence of one’s engagement with those forms. One of the ways in which one tries to see through the impasse is by working with what used to be called a “recombinant aesthetic”, whereby every element from these available narratives and genres was drawn upon, without swearing wholesale allegiance to them.
Now it seems to me that in that sort of context, the notion of hybridity does have a use because it connotes a certain descriptive accuracy when it is applied. My problem with it is when it begins to migrate from that space and into the field of identity, and particularly into the field of identity formation. I disagree with the deploying of hybridity essentially for what Paul Gilroy calls “racialogical purposes”. I don’t want to completely let go of the notion of the hybrid, I just want to limit the areas of its use and the values that one ascribes to it.
The reason why I say that I am much more interested in the hyphen is also because it poses cultural and intellectual challenges for me that I am trying to get my head around. Take, for instance, the notion of the “afropolitan”. The notion of the afropolitan has exactly the same sort of problems that hybridity had before. As a descriptive category, the afropolitain is trying to understand patterns of traffic, both cultural and identitarian, across the world. It is trying to find a way of discussing and understanding how someone such as David Adjaye might come about: someone born in Ghana, raised in Dar es Salaam, and who works in Europe, et cetera. We have to find ways of describing these identities without then setting up a hierarchy in which they appear to be more civilized, more “advanced” than the so-called “common” African who hasn’t had the experience of living in Dar es Salaam and/or other places. I can understand the ethical dimension to the problems we have but I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. Both terms are trying to understand patterns across the post-World War planet and we need to turn our attentions to how to do that without them becoming the problem that you are describing. What would you be happy with?

R.G.: If I just latch on to the “Afropolitan”, I understand the desire to coin the term, but what is wrong in this instance is almost a contradiction in terms, and I’ll explain what I mean. It’s not that we did not have city states for hundreds, thousands of years; it is not that knowledge was not being transferred. It’s not that there has not been active engagement with trade that comes out of the city. Somehow, however, in order to define the possibility of a metropolis in Africa it has to be redefined. Otherwise it becomes difficult for this place to be imagined as being this thriving energetic situation. Language also becomes very important. I am presently in a city that brands itself, that trades on the term, and I would have to check on this properly, but something along the lines of “a world class city in Africa”—you can see the problem already. So I think that these terms are helpful in alerting people to the fact that this, the African metropolis, is not strange, it is not different, there is nothing new in thriving African cities, it is just that you don’t see it.
Perhaps an anecdote will help. I had a show in Glasgow called Shrine, which was about Fela Kuti, well, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti to give his full name, and a woman came up to me and said, “Oh this is really good, people are beginning to listen to him,” and I said to her, “But, well, Madam you know there are over a 150 million people in Nigeria alone, so what do you mean by ‘people’?” We then got into this discussion. For her, she was slightly perplexed, and she felt I was being offensive by stating the obvious back to her, but the reality for me was I couldn’t understand what she’d meant by “people”. The same thing emerges with terms like “Afropolitan”, as if we’re describing notions of the hybrid, being seen and recognized outside of one’s own capacity. So you ask me what would work on me? Without me sounding too blunt: how about “original creation”? People simply do what they do, and recognize that individuals have the capacity to come into contact with influences and out of that produce something new. Not necessarily the genius prize, because I don’t usually ascribe to the notion of the genius, but it is possible for things to emerge because people are, to use another loose term, creative. People do things. We see things, we reject them, we say that one thing is not going to work for us, but that this other will. It’s like the question of language—lucky enough to have been taught Yoruba as a child, sometimes there are moments where I think there is a much better word in Yoruba for a situation, one that would work, that would be appropriate right now. Is that going to be deemed some kind of hybrid experience? Or just that I have access to other forms of knowledge, to other forms of thinking?

J.A.: You know, those of us involved in the afrofuturist debate feel partly responsible for the coming of the afropolitic. I want to try and rescue something from it, for a minute, by returning to that debate on “futurority” which afrofuturism is about. If you remember… neither term, either afro or futurist, were indeed new.

R.G.: No, of course not!

J.A.: The recombinant ethic there was to try and force two sets of seemingly mutually exclusive categories to talk to each other, and in the process, yield something new. The prize was that one gets to re-read questions of science fiction through the lens of race. In the process, one gets to re-read and re-transcribe notions of futurity. The implication of that, however, is the change that happens to the substance of the debate about what race constitutes the past and the future.

Coining the term allowed one, for instance, to work across a temporal line that questioned which came first. We were able to say, as Greg Tate would, that when you look for instance at the slave sublime, the modes of existence that slavery threw up, certain narrative scenarios emerge: here is a narrative in which people are forcibly removed, relocated somewhere, and they now have to exist in this strange and foreign land and make their way through it. Greg always asked, what could be more fitting for a science fiction scenario then that? Once you turn to the genre, the futurist genre of science fiction, one finds echoes that apply and in some ways, better describe certain conditions that are supposed to be historical. It was a provocative way of allowing that form of trespassing into territories in which one would otherwise not go. I believe in that co-mingling. I believe in the idea that if you force two words or two concepts or categories to collide or converse with each other, it tells you something about both.

R.G.: Yes, but you see, I’ve been doing some work on Afrofuturism recently, and it’s interesting being here in South Africa. Someone like Nola Hopkinson for instance, points out that the creative abilities surrounding storytelling and envisioning different dimensions and all of those things have always existed. That perhaps it is not as peculiar to existence, to the Afro-, to the African existence, as one necessarily imagines. Then someone like Fagunwa, for instance, who wrote The Forest of a Thousand Demons—to read that book now is to know that people have always been aware of a particular type of travel that exists in the imagination. Out of this contact with these alien and alienated bodies, something else emerges. You know, Amos Tutuola also does a similar thing. Certainly, science fiction as a form, which is almost always seen as the domain of the white spotty male… a geek in his or her bedroom, totally anti-social. Certainly it comes into collision with another type of existence, and out of that, comes Afrofuturism. I think Afrofuturism as an idea is really important. I think it’s very useful. I think it does help to explain the inexplicable. If anything, it is a form of escape from a type of containment. The escape comes from saying: “Well actually, there are other possibilities. If this world doesn’t work, then there’s another one, somewhere. Not the religious sort of other world, but other dimensions where I can function.”

J.A.: In the early 1990s, when it became clear that there was a cluster of concerns both in literature, in music and so on, that one could bring together to formulate a kind of Afrofuturist manifesto, what was very clear was that first and foremost, this was about trying to privilege forms of African address that are unpopular, non-traditional and not non-diegetic. In other words, this was a way of bringing Marcel Griaule’s Conversations with Ogotemmeli, African cosmological musings together with Sun Ra’s music, with Amos Tutuola’s novels, via a detour through Detroit Techno music. Basically, non-traditional, unpopular forms of black performative address. Very quickly, Afrofuturism became linked to them and I think unfortunately, it became overly linked with the notion of science fiction. Black science fiction was a part of that, and Afrofuturism told you something about the ways in which science fiction could be commandeered to speak other truths. Yet it was certainly not a sub-genre of science fiction, as it became for many people. The reason for that is to do with this protean possibility, when you force an untidy conjunction between these two categories.
It was never wholly a futurist debate around questions of fictions; scientific or otherwise. It was really an attempt to pull together a lot more, both a sonic, cultural archeology of artifact and of sensibilities that were just beyond the pale. The kind of stuff that questioned what the borders and boundaries of what one could call “black culture” or “African culture”. This was supposed to introduce the notion of the porous into those categories and force them to take on the itinerant, the outlaw, the troubador manifestos and ideas. I still believe that this is what happens when these protean possibilities are at their best. If you force two categories together in that way, it does begin to have a certain subversive value for forms of practice.
So, what is the connection with identity? Well, there are ethical implications in those forms of practice bricolage which can then become a discussion about identity. Yet only as what I would call “the second question”. Too often that second question finds a way of inserting itself as the first.

R.G.: I do want to look at this questionable, tentative identity. This is of considerable interest to me. I’ll use a very recent example. I went to the first national conference on albinism in South Africa. I was with government officials and “activists” who were saying that people with albinism were fundamentally disabled from the moment they are born, and a host of other things. I just wanted to wrap up what I think is an issue of alternative identities, as suddenly I was forced into a position that is almost alien to the discussion we are having now. A situation where the person, their identity, their structure, everything they assume about themselves has to be reconfigured to fit into another’s desired paradigm. I am using this example as a probe, as to what you might envision to be an “alternative identity”, considering the existing complex understandings and relationships that you recognize in the making of artwork, and in discussing it. In engaging the world, whether we like it or not, we are able to, and made to, speak from a pre-defined platform of our own or others’s making.

J.A.: I’m really glad you raise this question and I’m very, very happy to have done this with you, Raimi. We should do it more often. To sum up, this is what I would say: we’ve got to coexist in narratives and they do have overlaps and affinities but there are clearly two narratives that are preoccupied with their own unique, self-contained questions. If you were to push me even further, what I would say is this:
Over the years there has been a way in which identity has been attached to the work I’ve done. People have tried to link it to the question of identity politics in various ways. I’m against that use of the term to describe the work, for the very simple reason that it closes off all the things I am trying to explore. I’m instead interested in a politics of identity; I’m interested in probing the limits of beings, the limits of identities or even how identities come into being because I don’t accept that they are natural, biological, or otherwise. I know that those “eternal categories” play into the formation but I don’t want to give them the entire responsibility. Which then means that the work is invariably about how someone could say to me, “Well, you’re a black person.” What does that mean? When did this come into being? Because I remember not being black! I remember being Negro, Coloured, African and all sorts of not-so-flattering descriptions! I’m trying to understand the traffic between these moments of naming, all of which have appeared “natural” and “universal” at their inauguration. We could have this conversation, no doubt ‘till we die, because we are interested in the same things, though we come at them differently. So I thank you very much and hope to speak to you again soon.

R.G.: Thank you, too.

This article was created in collaboration with the Manifesta Journal and was initially published in the Journals’ issue “Future(s) of Cohabitation”, 2014. 

Re-published text from March 2014.

John Akomfrah. A Space of Empathy is on view from 9 November 2023 – 28 January 2024 at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt am Main, Germany. 



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