It's just a function of culture. Maybe we subconsciously gravitate toward what feels safe and natural. In an age that is hurtling toward the future, we're rarely confronted with history because, for the most part, we avoid it.
John Akomfrah's exhibition at Pérez Art Museum Miami, "Tropikos," is all about history. Specifically, it addresses the history of imperialism that informs both commerce and the lives of those connected to the African diaspora. In some of Akomfrah's languid tableaux, white Europeans in period garb lie amid spices and fabrics pillaged from far-away lands. Though the period is different, the theme doesn't stray from Akomfrah's earliest work with the Black Audio Film Collective, a group of seven artists who created films centered on black identity in Britain during the '80s and '90s.
After Diana Nawi curated "Tropikos," assistant curator Jennifer Inacio was tapped to organize a film series from the Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) to accompany Akomfrah's work and put the public in conversation with the narratives prevalent in their films.
"We thought this would be a great opportunity to bring BAFC to Miami," Inacio explains. "I really wanted to focus on different periods of their group. It was a very deep and political conversation that they were having."
"This fear of the other that was happening at that time, it's so relevant to today," Inacio says. "It's happening now with Brexit and the travel ban. That was one of the main motives of having this series here."
Of course, even history can feel distant and nonthreatening, especially when lumped in with hindsight and notions of "simpler times." How radical is a documentary about Malcolm X when you can buy his iconic browline glasses on Amazon? But the surrealist imagery that began to make its way into later BACF films, such as Mysteries of July and Seven Songs for Malcolm X, gives the films a modern feel. And PAMM's curation, both in film selection and guest speakers, tries to bring the films out of the past and into the present.
"I decided to choose [Seven Songs for Malcolm X] mainly to come back to the U.S.," Inacio says. " It was a nice bridge to bring the conversation back to us."
In an interview with Tate, Akomfrah explains the function of the archive not only as the recognition of what's gone, but also of preservation. He says, "The image is one of the ways in which immortality is enshrined in our psyche and in our mind and documentaries do that. You make a documentary because you want to both capture something that’s going to die unless it’s captured, but you’re also trying to capture something because you want it to live."
These films, in the words of Akomfrah, strive to legitimize black identity in a culture that refused to represent it — they seep into the present almost too easily. Here, it's not difficult to see that we've forgotten our history or that we're creating a future in which we'll continue to do so. And in an era that feels like history repeating itself, there's nothing that feels more vital than keeping that history alive.
Seven Songs for Malcolm X. 7 p.m. Thursday, July 27, at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org. Free with museum admission.
The Last Angel of History and Memory Room 451. 7 p.m. Thursday, August 10, at Pérez Art Museum Miami, 1103 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-375-3000; pamm.org. Free with museum admission.