The Unfinished Conversation is Akomfrah’s first large-scale video installation, building on his work as part of the Black Audio Film Collective, a group active in the United Kingdom from 1982 to 1998. Known for its essayistic films, the collective integrated archival footage to critically reevaluate what it described as the “figuration of identity” in cinema. This installation, comprising three synchronized video projections, traces the life and work of the Jamaican-born cultural theorist and activist Stuart Hall. Hall enrolled at Oxford University in 1951. His alienation from the university’s sociopolitical elite and his long-standing interest in histories of political oppression propelled him to become an influential figure of the British New Left—a movement that grew out of Marxism but that featured an expanded focus on civil rights and labor organization—and a founder of the field of cultural studies.
Akomfrah’s film interweaves archival imagery documenting historical events—including the post–World War II migration of nearly half a million Caribbean people to Britain, a group known as the Windrush generation—together with images from personal moments in Hall’s life. In doing so, Akomfrah has created a form of storytelling that illustrates Hall’s description of identity as a “matter of becoming” or an “ever unfinished conversation.” The film’s narrative ends in the late 1960s but includes recent interviews with Hall before he died in 2014, echoing his reflection on identity as belonging “to the future as well as to the past.”
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
John Akomfrah's Unfinished Conversation is a large-scale three-channel video installation that traces the life and work of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Hall was born in Jamaica, arrived in England as a student, and went on to become an influential figure of the British New Left and a foremost public intellectual. This work interweaves his biography with key national and international events, such as the attack on the working class in Britain and the Suez Crisis, thereby linking the personal with the historical. Akomfrah—a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective, which was established in the 1980s—uses archival footage and original interviews. Throughout, he evokes Hall's concept of "becoming," which Hall explains in the video by describing identity as "an ever-unfinished conversation." Made two years before Hall's death in 2014, the installation is a testament to the ongoing impact of the thinker's ideas on artists and cultural institutions.
Gallery label from Unfinished Conversations, March 19-July 30, 2017.