Larry Achiampong at John Hansard Gallery, Southampton

J.J. Charlesworth unpacks discussions of race, labour and identity politics in recent works by the British-Ghanian artist

By J.J. Charlesworth

The Expulsion (installation view), 2019, 4k colour video, 14 min 5 sec. Courtesy the artist and Copperfield, London

The past and the future of race, the experience of African diaspora and the relationship of history to identity drive Larry Achiampong’s When the Sky Falls, in which childhood biography spirals quickly into reflections on bigger political realities.

Versions of the artist’s PAN AFRICAN FLAG FOR THE RELIC TRAVELLERS’ ALLIANCE (MOTION) (2018) – motifs of red, yellow and green bands around a black disc, alongside 54 black stars (for each African country) – adorn the façade of the gallery. These relate to Achiampong’s recent Relic films (2017–), in which a future united Africa sends out ‘relic travellers’ to scour a ruined West, collecting oral testimonies of those once oppressed by its disappeared civilisation. Africa’s precolonial past is projected towards a postcolonial future.

The narrator of the videowork Sunday’s Best (2016) recalls his childhood puzzlement over the fact that the only image of a white man in his home was a picture of ‘white Jesus’. A rapid, barely legible sequence of images, referring to colonial rule, Christianity and racisms old and new, is followed by scenes of the interior of a Victorian Gothic church, as the narrator remembers his evangelical Christian upbringing: the charismatic pastor, the rapturous, all-day worship, the threadbare meeting hall.

He goes on to muse on the names used for Jesus – Jesu Christo, but also Nyame – while a black woman, dressed in vividly patterned traditional dress appears, ghostlike, singing passionately in the staid English church. The use of Nyame – the god of Ashanti religion – leads the narrator to conclude that his congregation’s forms of worship had little to do with European Christianity transposed to Africa, but were rather the submerged traces of Ashanti culture, carried through a long century, from the time of the Ashanti uprising against British rule in 1900, in what is present-day Ghana.

If Sunday’s Best rescues diasporic identity from historical erasure, The Expulsion (2019) crackles with indignation over continued inequality. As its narrator recalls accompanying his mother to nighttime cleaning jobs in London offices during the 1990s, the film follows a black woman as she mops and dusts gloomy interiors. She is one of the ‘twilight people’, ‘hidden from the white-collar types’, ‘invisible’ labourers who nightly perform the ‘expulsion’ of dirt from boardrooms in which the wealthy ‘dictate our future’. Achiampong’s narrator loathes this drudgery, while observing that his white working-class classmates and their parents have it better than his family. His mother’s advice is every migrant’s aspirational escape: ‘Make sure you excel’.

As for us, the audience, we watch The Expulsion sitting on office chairs, surrounded by potted palms, watched in turn by a gathering of ‘Henry’ vacuum cleaners – the ones with the smiley, slightly sinister, upward-looking eyes. By this, Achiampong deftly offers a moment of institutional critique, looping the narrative back into the gallery space. If the narrator is Achiampong, then the artist of the present has indeed ‘escaped’: to the art gallery, with the cultural capital this position offers, to both the artist and us, the audience. Yet we know that come closing time, the ‘twilight people’ will clock in, and that cleaning galleries pays the same as cleaning offices.

If there’s an art-historical echo in The Expulsion, it might be The Nightcleaners, a 1975 documentary by the Berwick Street Film Collective; a vision of low-waged nightwork seen through the lens of gender – white and black women fighting male bosses and male-dominated unions. The Expulsion is more bleakly resigned to such social divisions, while class solidarities fade behind the surer focus on ethnicity and race. But the question for that future Africa may still be: will the pay be better?

Larry Achiampong, When the Sky Falls, John Hansard Gallery, Southampton, 25 January – 21 March

From the March 2020 issue of ArtReview