The video artist John Akomfrah has been named the winner of this year’s Artes Mundi, the UK’s biggest prize for international contemporary art, and used the platform to berate the “bleak culture of fear and intolerance” he said had gripped Britain.
The biennial award, held in Cardiff, which comes with £40,000 prize money, focuses on artists who engage with social and political issues and the human condition.
Akomfrah’s winning piece, Auto Da Fé, is one of his several recent works which engage with humankind’s long tradition of migration and refugees that goes back centuries. He said they were made in part as a response to the “shameful” hostility that has greeted the millions of people driven out of Africa and the Middle East seeking safety on European shores.
At a time when nationalism is on the rise across Europe and Donald Trump’s first move as US president has been to halt all refugee asylum in America, Akomfrah said the work felt “even more urgent” than when he completed it a year ago.
Akomfrah first conceived Auto Da Fé in 2009, when he said he first got a “sense” of the anti-immigrant feeling that was beginning to creep into everyday conversation and politics. The work weaves together different moments over 400 years of history when communities or ethnic groups were persecuted and driven from their land, from Sephardic Jews fleeing Brazil in 1654 to the recent Isis-driven genocide of the Yazidis in Iraq and Christians in Mosul.
“We are currently experiencing the worst discussion of migration I have lived through, in the 40 years I have observed these debates,” he said. “It feels bleak, it feels intolerant and it feels frightening.
“Most of the ideas in Auto Da Fé were really about saying to people: ‘You really have to consider the option that people are migrating literally to survive. They come here to be able to live, because there isn’t an alternative anywhere else.’ And that seems to be an insight that has been lost.”
Akomfrah won the prestigious accolade over artists such as Lamia Joreige, whose mixed-media work dealt with the legacy of war-torn Beirut; the dystopian installation of the Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams imagining a future city; the agricultural-based sculpture of Amy Franceschini; and Angolan artist Nástio Mosquito’s work addressing big pharma.
The previous winner, Theaster Gates, made ripples in the art world in 2015 when he announced he would “split this motherfucker” and share the £40,000 prize money with the nine other shortlisted artists. For Akomfrah, the win should mean the realisation of a film he has been hoping to make for more than a decade, the third in a trilogy resurrecting black cultural figures forgotten by history.
Akomfrah’s work was praised by the judges for grappling, unafraid, with some of the biggest debates of the moment around immigration, diasporas and human belonging. Yet Akomfrah said that as someone born in Ghana who moved to the UK as a child, he had never stopped being aware of how migration was spoken about in this country and it had driven almost all his work – though now more so than ever.