Sunday’s Best (2017) is a contemplative short film that explores faith and history as a personal and collective experience. Presented as a largescale single-screen projection, it begins with the pulsating soundtrack of an African church service accompanied by a minute-long visual cacophony of historical and contemporary imagery drawn from archival, history-book and television sources. Fleeting and mesmerising, these images are barely decipherable, but last long enough to give the impression of seismic and even catastrophic events that have befallen and continue to shape the black diaspora: the Atlantic slave trade, the scramble for Africa, colonial rule, forced migration, xenophobia, the aftermath of police brutality.
As sound and visuals fade, a vivid closeup of a young boy fills the screen, head bowed and eyes closed in deep contemplation. Organ music, reminiscent of the beginning of a religious service, here introduces our narrator. He recalls learning about religious figures and deities, and wearing his Sunday best for church. He also recounts the three types of imagery that could be found in his childhood home: historic Ghanaian freedom fighters, family members and images of Jesus, “the only white person important enough to share a place on my family’s walls”. He continues, “I always wondered why someone from Bethlehem was as white as chalk.” This candour is purposeful, contrasting with the subtle interplay of image and sound, space and scale.
The majority of the film centres on static shots of the inside of archetypal Christian churches, replete with details of white religious icons, stained-glass windows, altars, stations of the cross and church organs. Such sacred imagery is punctuated by the sound of African worship and is at odds with the narrator’s recollections of his family’s church in London, which was more akin to those places of worship located in less conventional environments such as vacated shops and pubs or decommissioned municipal buildings.
The title of the work is itself a play on words. Its meaning is ambiguous: alluding to sartorial custom, it could also be someone’s name, or an assertion that Sunday is the pinnacle of the week. During the denouement, in the previously empty church we come face-to-face with a woman who emerges ghostlike in front of the altar. She is dressed in a striking traditional West African outfit. A closeup lingers on a detail of fabric, a signifier of her African identity; equally it could be a play on the sanctity of ‘the cloth’. Animated in her gestures, the woman closes her eyes; tears trickle down her cheeks. She looks to be in a state of spiritual euphoria, or a mournful but dignified incongruous presence within a congregation-less church; here the discord between sound and image disrupts the narrative flow. The single authorial voice is itself subsumed by an almost otherworldly intervention. Presented in a former church and projected at a scale that covers the entire width of one end of the space, the result is a physically immersive and emotive experience, as the gallery becomes an extension of the church depicted in the film.
African-led churches are today a prominent feature of a number of Britain’s cities. Their presence signifies a multifaith and multicultural society. While an integral part of the landscape, they also occupy a decidedly separate sphere to that of Britain’s more conventional Christian churches. Achiampong brings into dialogue these separate but historically intertwined manifestations of Christianity. In doing so, he constructs a compelling study about an often-overlooked aspect of faith and history in contemporary Britain.
Larry Achiampong: Sunday’s Best at Copperfield, London, 23 November – 16 December
From the March 2018 issue of ArtReview