John Akomfrah at the Barbican

I visited John Akomfrah’s exhibition Purple at The Curve Gallery in The Barbican. Sean O’Hagan (2017) describes Purple as “an immersive, six-channel video installation that attempts to evoke the incremental effects of climate change on our planet”. It was a fascinating exhibition which O’Hagan goes on to state “eschews a linear narrative for an almost overwhelming montage of imagery and sound”.

As much as I appreciated experiencing this part of the exhibition, my attention was particularly drawn to the first exhibits in the gallery titled Preliminal Rites (2017). These were a series of six photographs which the gallery notes describe as Digital C-type colour print on Kodak Paper 203cm x 152cm

 Preliminal Rites is a series of two triptychs featuring people in period costume in a rural landscape and heavily symbolic setting.



I studied the images for ages, are they landscape or tableaux? They are certainly in a landscape setting, but are far more than a record of a landscape. There are many symbols in the images, the very prominent clock face indicating the passage of time, the barrels and tyres indicating despoilation of the countryside, the skull a symbol of mortality. The gallery notes said that the triptychs question “our notion of permanence – be it the transience of natural resources or the longevity of human morality – as a momento mori of our precarious times”. I wanted to find out more about the artist’s intention in these images and found on-line John Akomfrah in conversation with Anthony Downey in Art Mag by Deutsche Bank  (2017). Akomfrah describes the work as “a figurative photographic work that uses the language, ideas, icons, and conventions of the historical triptych to speak to modern themes”.

Akomfrah talks of his influences in this work, in particular what he describes as “two of the most famous triptychs in the history of Western painting”. These were  The Portinari Altarpiece (1475) by Hugo van der Goes, 

(Hugo van der Goes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)


and the Adoration of the Magi  (1510) by Hieronymus Bosch.

(Hieronymus Bosch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

It is always interesting to consider an artist’s influences and to see the degree to which they may have affected contemporary work. In this instance the landscape setting to the original triptychs is similar to that used by Akomfrah, people assume prominent positions in all of the images as the triptychs tell a story. Akomfrah’s differs in that all three constituent images of his triptychs are the same size whereas those by Bosch and  van der Goes follow the traditional pattern of a large central image with smaller flanking images on either side.

In  Art Mag by Deutsche Bank  (2017) Akomfrah describes how his panels “depict three couples—all of mixed heritage — who originate from different historical epochs: the 1860s, 1890s, and 1920s, respectively. The work is about journeys and journeying, and each couple presents or stages elements of that, as well as their relationships, in a panoramic setting”. He was particularly interested in “how these works explore liminal, in-between states of being, as if the figures in the landscape had been abandoned by time”.

I was fascinated to read in more depth Akomfrah’s approach, it was so much more detailed than the gallery notes at the Barbican. When I first saw the images in The Curve I could see that there was a detailed story being relayed, but I have gained so much more of that from further research. If I get the opportunity to visit The Barbican again before the exhibition ends I will try to see Preliminal Rites again as, following my research, I think I will get more out of it a second time.




ArtMag by Deutsche Bank (2017) The Matter of Memory; John Akomfrah in conversation with Anthony Downey. At: (Accessed on 10 November 2017)

O’HAGAN, S. (2017) John Akomfrah: ‘Progress can cause profound suffering’. At: (Accessed on 10 November 2017)