The first voice you hear in Larry Achiampong’s new film Wayfinder is that of his eight-year-old daughter, Zael. “The beginning of every story begins with the end of another,” she says, with the endearing hesitation of a young reader approaching a sentence for the first time. “This story begins at the end of a world we once knew.”
The British-Ghanaian multimedia artist’s words are intended to evoke the language of fairy tales and science fiction, but also to capture the dystopian end-time tenor of recent years. However, performed by Zael in front of a black cover picture, they are alienated, removed from the usual language of the art world and placed in the context of family, childhood and bedtime stories.
“Definitely,” says Achiampong from his studio on the Essex coast. “Removing my voice or face is very important to me in my art, but so is working with family and friends. I think of filmmakers like Shane Meadows where they bring their own language and community of actors. You get this feeling of working-class familiarity.”
This simultaneous combination of the strange, the familiar, and the working-class experience is a good way to describe the art of Wayfinder and Achiampong in general. Set during an unspecified pandemic, the film follows a character called the Wanderer, a young girl played by Perside Rodrigues, who wanders across England, from Hadrian’s Wall to a housing estate in Wellingborough to a cup of tea at E Pellicci’s cafe in London and a late-night stroll through the Turner Wing of the National Gallery before arriving at Margate and the sea.
Shot during lockdown, it is a film influenced by personal notions of fear and isolation, but also by broader notions of class, empire, history and national identity. “The pandemic has taken so much,” says Achiampong, 37. “The scenes where the hiker wears the weird gas mask? I made these masks for my family in the early days of the pandemic when I wasn’t sure what was going on. I was separated from my children who I raise together for three months, so yes, that trauma went into the film.”
Throughout her journey, the wanderer meets real and fictional people who trace the film’s broader themes of empire, division and belonging, from a Bolshie Cafe patron, voiced by Russell Tovey, to Britain’s first black Olympian, Anita Neil, and, In One of the film’s most powerful moments features a griot, played by artist Mataio Austin Dean, singing a haunting version of a 17th-century English folk ballad, Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor, AKA The Brown Girl.
“I met Mataio at the Slade School,” explains Achiampong, referring to London Art College, “and was totally amazed by his approach to English and British folk songs in relation to his own Guyanese-English heritage. They came up with the idea of singing different versions of The Brown Girl. This reinterpretation of British heritage and history is quite familiar to me in relation to my Ghanaian heritage.”
I tell Achiampong that I’ve seen the film three times and I’m still discovering new things in it. “It’s really up to the audience to make their own connections,” he says. “But Mataio and I talked about this idea of unrequited love, in terms of living in the UK for someone who is different or not white; the longing to be part of something that pushes you out. For example, the Wanderer’s meeting with Anita Neil. This person is iconic, the first black British Olympian. It should be celebrated – and have you heard of it? I didn’t even know about her until I started shooting the film. I decided to focus on their pride, that sense of belonging that bucked against that other kind of energy and made us feel like we weren’t part of England, let alone the UK. There’s a love story in there. I guess I wanted to focus on the difficulty of this love story.”
This troubled love story can be seen in the artist’s earliest works, such as 2007’s Lemme Skool U, a series of family portraits in which young Achiampong’s face was replaced with a ‘cloud face’, a black circle with exaggerated cartoons . like red lips inspired by the racist “Golly” cartoon that used to be the mascot on Robertson’s Jam.
“When I created the first Cloud Face image,” explains Achiampong, “I thought of Robertson’s Gollys, but I wasn’t trying to create that kind of caricature. I wanted them to have an almost otherworldly aesthetic where even gender gets confused. I’m still making Cloud Face pieces. I made a short film in 2013 where I designed a Cloud Face helmet and walked around the Tate Modern imagining her as a sort of explorer character.
The explorer character also fed into Achiampong’s ambitious 2016 project, Relic Traveler. Inspired by the aftermath of Brexit, Achiampong created a quadrilogy of short, haunting sci-fi films that chronicled the progress of space-suited “Relic Travelers” through a British landscape ravaged by nationalism, gathering evidence of the colonial past. The films were influenced in part by British-Ghanaian filmmaker John Akomfrah, but also by video games such as The Legend of Zelda.
“That’s where my cinematic language comes from,” says Achiampong. “The Sega MegaDrive, the Super Nintendo where anything feels possible and you feel like you’re jumping through portals into a whole different environment. We were a working-class family. I didn’t have the privilege of going to galleries when I was young, but I was shown art in other ways. ”
From this way of thinking and organizing ideas grew Achiampong’s conceptual guiding principle, the Sanko period. “It brings two words together,” he explains. “Sankofa” is a Twi word from Ghana, meaning to go back and get something that may be in front of you that you never noticed. I also consider time travel to revise the past to prepare for the future.”
One of the most striking examples of the Sanko period is Achiampong’s roundel for Westminster tube station. Installed in 2019, it is based on his 2017 Pan-African flag for the Relic Travelers’ Alliance, which flew over Somerset House during his 2017 stay. The default red, white, and blue background scheme has been replaced with the pan-African colors of red, gold, and green and 54 stars, representing the 54 countries of the African Union. I tell him that when I went to the train station to see the roundabout, it felt like stepping onto a new platform in a computer game and stepping into an alternate future at the same time.
“That’s the language I speak!” says Achiampong, laughing. “I’m a gamer, I love playing in environments. I’ve never felt that the British flags spoke to me, about me or for me, so it was nice to have this opportunity to create this new design and to hear people say that it made them feel recognized.”
There is optimism and irony in Achiampong’s use of the colors and countries of the African Union, an organization that aims to achieve greater unity, integration and solidarity among African nations. It’s the polar opposite of the dystopian vision of Britain he portrays in his films Relic Traveler and Wayfinder, a vision rooted in family, childhood, class and the city he grew up in.
“When I was a child, I used to do cleaning jobs in the city with my mother very early in the morning or late at night,” says Achiampong. “So when the pandemic happened, I was already familiar with the emptiness of the city, but also the role played by key workers who travel like ghosts through the empty cityscape. I helped my mom with cleaning jobs in big offices, TV studios, places where people weren’t good at cleaning their desks, leaving packaging or whatever. My mother would say to me, “You know, these people – if we weren’t here, give it up one day and their world would be turned upside down.” That’s stuck with me.”
Larry Achiampong’s Wayfinder exhibition runs at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate until June 19 before touring the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes and the Baltic in Gateshead. The exhibition also includes the largest UK presentation of Achiampong’s Relic Traveler project, as well as a curated exhibition of JMW Turner’s paintings referenced in Wayfinder and a Gaming Room showcasing video games that have influenced Achiampong’s work.