A blog post Nikita Gell
MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies

‘How do you say things that binds slavery in a vocabulary that respects and activates different registers?’. This was a question the artist himself had recalled for the audience when speaking about Vertigo Sea and perhaps the best response came from a member of this audience. Professor Alan Rice, microphone in hand, stood and spoke of Frances Elizabeth Johnson, a West Indian servant woman in the 18th century whose severed hand was kept as a memento by the english family who had brought her from the West Indies to work for them. Eliza Dear, a descendant of this family is said to have noted that the walls of their rambling Edwardian house was covered with antlers and heads of animals whilst the dried black hand was presented on the fireplace. This story, a powerful retelling prior to viewing the installation Vertigo Sea, contemplates the far reaching consequences of those who believe anyone and everything can be owned.

Vertigo Sea and Metonymy: ‘Matter’ Matters.


Vertigo Sea is an artwork based in conversation exploring questions about the treatment of people, animals and the earth and the installation presents these questions as concerns that cross boundaries. While each issue has its own space, they are all affected by each other. The three screens function as eyes and voices telling you stories which are based in both fiction and reality, and movement within the three screens is underpinned by the continual flow of the vast expanse of the oceans, always churning, always singing, always alive with matter. You sit before the panel of screens and are presented with scenes portraying the realities of the history of movement by way of the sea. This movement – by nature, force or invitation addresses the motion of people and the behavioural ecology of migration as conversations happening at the same time. One visitor on opening night found it difficult not to turn away from the reality of antarctic hunting and the whaling industry whilst I found it hard in equal measure to see visions of human slavery, both were tales of mistreatment and abuse. In this sense we each had to bear witness to one another’s source of pain. Vertigo Sea encourages an incredibly important dialogue to take place about what it is that matters to us, not just about slavery and survival, but also about migration, sustainability and climate change.

“It’s Through Romanticism that Humanism Becomes Possible”…

John Akomfrah makes use of archival footage, including the kind that you find on TV on a sunday night narrated by David Attenborough. This footage is reconfigured and deconstructed and without its original voice-over narrative in what John Akomfrah calls ‘a form of liberation’. By taking away those voices, others are heard.

The grandeur and beauty in these nature led clips provide an aesthetic experience that sits firmly within the realm of 18th century romanticism. The sweeping panoramas placed side by side with acts of violence, both natural and manmade (the antarctic hunts and the whaling industry). One of my favourite scenes depicts an original film by John Akomfrah of Olaudah Equiano (c.1745 – 97) in a moving portrait reminiscent of Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c.1818). Olaudah Equiano was a former slave whose autobiography of his life through the slave trade and his time as a freed man working at sea was a personal account important in the abolition of the slave trade. The composition is beautiful and severe, Equiano stands in quiet contemplation in his Tricorne hat, cravat and full-skirted coat against the scene of a land so different from his native environment. This visual raised questions of legitimacy which alerts you to a history of a prejudice, about what is fiction and what isn’t, something that is felt all the more intensely in today’s political and cultural unrest. A member of the audience spoke of this prejudice with John Akomfrah in the event preceding the preview in which she confessed to automatically questioning the validity of a person of colour in the 18th century, dressed in western fashions of the day. Akomfrah in turn discussed the idea of costume as a way to underwrite past-ness, of what we have been told of about the history of the slave trade and those who survived and succeeded beyond it (and in spite of it), and about stories of survival and success which have been buried in time.

John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea is many things, many voices and many histories collectively speaking. I found the event preceding the exhibition to be a great experience for the opportunity to hear the artist’s perspective on the themes of the installation. In part, it highlights the unnerving growth in the respectability of misanthropy and ‘misothery’.


The installation is on view at The Whitworth until 28th August 2017

This exhibition is part of a UK tour of Vertigo Sea and has been supported by funds awarded to Arnolfini, Bristol through Art Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund.


John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015 © Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Öl auf Leinwand (Wanderer above the Sea of Fog), 94,8 x 74,8 cm © Stiftung für die Hamburger Kunstsammlungen, photo: Elke Walford


Burns, Karen. “Fanny’s Hand.” Castle Park Stories. Heritage Lottery Fund, n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2017. http://www.castleparkstories.org/chapter-13/.

Hughes, Linda K., Sarah R. Robbins, and Alan Rice. “Chapter 7: Dramatising the Black Atlantic: Live Action Projects in Classrooms.” Teaching Transatlanticism Resources for Teaching 19th-Century Anglo-American Print Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2015. N. pag. Print.

“Olaudah Equiano (c.1745-1797): The Former Slave, Seaman & Writer: The Abolition of Slavery Project.” The Abolition Project. E2BN – East of England Broadband Network, n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2017. http://abolition.e2bn.org/people_25.html

Kalof, Linda. “Misothery: Contempt for Animals and Nature, Its Origins, Purposes, and Repercussions.” The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2017. N. pag. Print.