Peripeteia, a film made by John Akomfrah in 2012 is a most remarkable work. Much like his previous film Mnemosyne (2010), Peripeteia is a visually stunning, nuanced and beautiful piece of filmmaking, which, like its predecessor, utilizes in part, the motif of a solitary Black figure traversing stunning, yet bleak, landscapes. Peripeteia takes as its subjects many things, but perhaps the central aspect is an imagined inquiry into the lives of two people of African heritage – one a man, the other a woman – who lived in Europe in the 16th century. Akomfrah, in a gesture of brilliance and originality, took as his starting point two drawings by Albrecht Dürer, the Nuremberg painter and printmaker who lived from 1471 to 1528. The drawings under consideration by Akomfrah were the anonymous-sounding Head of a Negro of 1508 and the more informatively titled Portrait of the Moorish Woman Katharina of 1521.
Africans in Europe from centuries past have on occasion been fascinating and intriguing subject matter for artists such as Dürer and Peter Paul Rubens. However, in comprehending such images, one is struck with a certain frustration at the lack of biographical information that can be gleaned from these portraits: Who were these people? How came they to Europe? What lives might they have lived? In large measure, our ignorance is compounded by the failure of historians to more adequately investigate images of Black people in European art. Into this void of knowledge steps Akomfrah, with a majestic work that rescues this particular Black man and woman from the obscurity in which they have been entombed, for the greater part of half a millennium. Akomfrah, in a manner of speaking, brings these two persons back to life, as both apparitions and protagonists.
As with other work by Akomfrah, such as Mnemosyne, Peripeteia speaks to its viewers of wandering, solitude, and isolation. The two bodies are, in turn, cast as solitary figures navigating environments that the viewer might intuit as alien to the wanderers. Of course, the filmic trope of the stranger traversing an alien environment is not new to us, but Akomfrah’s construction and framing of his subjects demand from us socially and culturally charged readings of the ways in which the man and woman in Dürer’s drawings came to be strangers in a strange land. Such considerations might oblige us to consider the possible extents to which these early 16th century manifestations of Diaspora have a contemporary resonance and application.
Because though Peripeteia centers on the imagined journeys - both actual and metaphorical - of this Black woman and man 500 years earlier, the film is, in many other respects, very much rooted in, and evocative of, late 20th/early 21st century conditions and experiences. The film’s color saturation, painterly qualities and composition work to make this an investigation of early 16th century persons reimagined in the present, as they traverse landscapes which, though otherwise void of people, still speak to us of the present day.
True to form, the title of Akomfrah’s film acts as a fascinating entry point into the film itself. Peripeteia, as a noun, can be taken to mean a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances, especially in reference to fictional narrative. Thus, the film’s title affords us a nuanced, intelligent and dramatic entry point into Akomfrah’s intention. Simultaneously, Peripeteia is aurally close to the adjective, peripatetic, meaning to travel from place to place, in particular working in various places for relatively short periods. This might be a dominant definition of the word, but a macro understanding of peripatetic is one that pretty much sums up modern and contemporary manifestations of Diaspora, as lived and experienced by African peoples and peoples of African origin. Perpetual movement, migration, and relocation are experiences that for some have, since the centuries of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, come to have a certain synonymy with Black people.
But Akomfrah’s protagonists retain and evoke a decidedly ethereal sensibility. Not for the first time does a haunting, ghost-like aesthetic frame his extraordinary work. Because the work sidesteps the providing of answers, Peripeteia is a beautiful, haunting work that continues to fascinate, irrespective of the number of times one watches it. The work will have an assured place for generations to come.
The above extracts are from “Peripeteia,”, a text on Peripeteia, a film by John Akomfrah, for the calalogue for Dakar-Martigny: Hommage à la Biennale d’art contemporain (Homage to the Dakar Biennale of Contemporary Art), an exhibition curated by Hélène Tissieres, formerly a professor in the Department of French and Italian, University of Texas at Austin, “that will be a kind of homage to the Dakar Biennale, bringing together some of the works from the previous events (2004 to 2014)”, June 10 – 18 September 2016, Le Manoir de la Ville de Martigny, Switzerland