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Racism, Spirituality and Sex: Three Shows and Three Themes at the Seattle Art Museum

Part I

John Akomfrah’s “Future History” (until May 3, 2020) majestically fills three major galleries on the fourth floor of the Seattle Art Museum with video works projected on huge walls in separate darkened rooms. Spanning 500 years of history from the beginning of the slave trade in Elizabethan England to the present moment, each work is immersive and mesmerizing.

We first encounter Vertigo Sea of 2015. Projected as three large adjacent images, it overwhelms us. Sometimes the images flow from one to another, other times they sharply clash. If you have ever seen one of David Attenborough’s BBC nature films, you will recognize some of his incredible footage: the artist gained permission to use it after befriending Attenborough for a full year. But Akomfrah goes the extra step that Attenborough only touches on in his most recent film: climate crises caused by our own actions.

Video still from Vertigo Sea, 2015, John Akomfrah, three channel HD color video installation, 7.1 sound, 48 minutes 30 seconds, © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

He juxtaposes stunning nature sequences with the murder of humans in the slave trade and the hunting of whales. We watch horrified as the spears enter the animal and the helpless whale bleeds into the sea and dies, even as another screen celebrates their beauty. We gasp in disbelief at the reenactment of slaves forced overboard alive. Akomfrah gives us the unrelenting brutalities of genocide by hunters of animals and people who shared a single-minded goal - to make money. Interspersed in the film are many quotes including Moby Dick and Heathcote Williams 1988 poem Whale Nation:

“From space, the planet is blue/ From space the planet is the territory/Not of humans/ but of the whale.”