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British artist John Akomfrah wins £40,000 Artes Mundi Prize

The Ghanaian-born film-maker’s work draws on themes like migration, colonialisation and the environment

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Since it was founded in Wales in 2002, the biennial Artes Mundi Prize has produced winners that live up to its title: “arts of the world”. Xu Bing, the first winner, hails from China, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, the second, from Finland, N.S. Harsha from India, Yael Bartana from Israel, Teresa Margolles from Mexico, while last edition’s recipient was the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. For the first time in its history, this year’s winner is the British artist John Akomfrah, though the themes of his work—which include migration, colonialisation and the environment—could hardly be more international.

Akomfrah was announced as the winner of the £40,000 prize at a celebration Thursday evening at the National Museum Cardiff, the host of the Artes Mundi exhibition, alongside another Cardiff-based arts institution, Chapter (until 26 February). He is showing a powerful, 40-minute, two-screen video, Auto Da Fé (2016), which muses on the theme of mass migration over a 400-year period. “I wanted to focus on the fact that many people have to leave because something terrible is happening, it’s not just about leaving for a better life, many people feel they have to leave to have a life at all,” Akomfrah says.

Auto Da Fé was filmed on the island of Barbados, but refers obliquely to eight migrations, from the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews of Brazil in the 17th century, to the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. The seductive visual nature of the film was “very important”, Akomfrah says. “The look is critical, I thought a lot about the way that film would be migrated into the gallery setting, and its formal qualities.” The work is divided into “chapters” which can be watched individually, or as part of the overall narrative.

Born in Accra, Ghana in 1957, Akfomfrah was a founder of the UK’s Black Audio Film Collective in 1982, and has gone on to have a distinguished documentary and art film career, becoming an artist trustee of the Tate in 2015. The other shortlisted artists include Neil Beloufa, Amy Franceschini/Futurefarmers, Lamia Joreige, Nástio Mosquito and Bedwyr Williams.