Sitdown is an Alchemy Film & Arts series of artist interviews, published to complement its exhibitions, residencies, and other events. You can find all other Sitdown entries here.
Raised in London and Accra, Baff Akoto is an artist working across multiple mediums. He is currently busy with his next VR/immersive project and the following two artist film works in the Leave the Edges trilogy. A self-taught filmmaker, Baff is interested in the fluidity of visual grammar and characters who wrestle with notions of identity and self-perceptions. His practice has been shaped by mentors including the acclaimed artist John Akomfrah and the Oscar-winning Asif Kapadia. In 2018, Screen International tipped Baff as a ‘Star of Tomorrow’.
A programme of Baff’s films is part of the eleventh edition of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, available on demand, 29 April – 3 May.
Listen to a conversation between artist in focus Baff Akoto and artist and curator Ronan Mckenzie, whose commissioned essay on the programme can also be read below.
Ronan Mckenzie (RM): So starting from the very beginning – how were your very first days in Accra, Ghana, coming from West London? And how, if so, have those early memories influenced or informed your perspective as as an artist?
Baff Akoto (BA): Wow, 20 minutes yeah?
RM: I know! Let’s see how we get on.
BA: I mean, you know, the interesting thing is… my very first day that… I’ve been going a bit… first time I was in Accra was like six months old, right, like, I’ve been going to Accra since I was born.
RM: Yeah. Did you move there, back there, as a kind of late teenager/early adult?
BA: No, no, I was at secondary school. So I was 13, 13/14. When I sort of went, started school in Ghana. Yeah so I mean, I guess it was just like, any new kid at school, right? Like you’re crashing into like an existing peer group, and you’re the outsider. So yeah, that that, I think, is pretty normal. So yeah, I mean, there was certain sort of tensions there and sort of moving… And, you know, like, leaving behind a lot of stuff and I was very conscious that London was, like, the centre of the world. And I laugh at that now, because it clearly isn’t. But I think colonially, like, there’s a lot of remnants of, um, empire that mean that a lot of different facets of global culture meet in London, in a very unique way. So, and I was very conscious of leaving that behind. Yeah.
But what met, what I met in, in Ghana, and you know, I guess that immerse, being immersed in like, my heritage culture, and, you know, having the chance to kind of make that home was something that I didn’t appreciate at the time, I don’t think. But ultimately, yeah, it’s kind of been the thing I’ve always tapped into culturally, aesthetically, politically, you know, the wider context of you know, the history of, you know, Ghana and Kroma coming out of like, the British kind of colonial situation. All of that is is ever-present.
But then, you know, then yeah, I mean, I get one thing that was really interesting going to Ghana was like, you… that’s the first time I heard about Du Bois [‘Doo-boise’], as they, as they call him, Du Bois [‘Doo-bwah’]. And, you know, there’s a certain kind of, you know, and you know, there’s like the roundabout near my school, was the Sankara Circle, Thomas Sankara. Suddenly, I’m thrust into, without really being conscious of it, you’re thrust into kind of a whole history of like Pan-Africanism, global diasporic culture, which you’re definitely not privy to in London.
RM: I mean, diaspora is such a key theme of your work isn’t it? Or it seems to be…
BA: Yeah, I mean of my life, really. The work is an extension of that. But yeah, I mean, I think we talk about all the different facets that kind of make up diasporic peoples right? And you try and break that down and inherently, whether you’re talking about Armenians in Lebanon, or you know, Somalis in Kenya, like there’s, there’s all the Irish in Liverpool, you know what I mean? There’s like a lot of movement, movement of peoples, and that’s the story of humanity. So, you know, with that movement, with that kind of expansion, inevitably comes trauma but also out of that comes what we come to understand as culture.
RM: Yeah, yeah. I was gonna say cause that kind of brings me on to the next thing I wanted to talk about because I was reading the interview that you did with Nataal where you kind of noted that it’s relevant to Armenians and Irish in America as it is to Black folks. And then I also read about the project you did exploring diasporic Blackness in the Southeast Asian context. So then bringing us on to your latest film project where I’ve read that you kind of noted that you hope it kind of hits a chord with whoever watches it and makes them feel a certain way about themselves and where they come from. And I wanted to ask you, how important or productive do you feel it is to draw those parallels between the feeling of diaspora across different cultures?
BA: Um, you know, if I’m honest, I’m just speculating, you know, because I’m not Armenian, you know. I have Armenian friends, they talk to me about, you know, the genocide and how they, why they’re from Syria, you know, instead of Armenia. And I think it’s interesting and that’s the thing about, you know, coming up in London, right, like, you just, you’re privy to so many of these stories from so many of these different cultures. So, yeah, it’s me speculating, like, knowing those stories and growing up with those other people’s stories that are not Black or African, but they are diaspora, you know, and I’m watching that and seeing, seeing, you know, what that means to them. Me speculating about how they might relate to my work is kind of based on that really.
RM: Yeah. So is that kind of almost a tool of sort of togetherness and bringing – coming together with, sort of, similar experiences and shared experiences?
BA: Um, maybe. I mean, I think, you know, if people kind of don’t get it, then that’s fine. That’s their business. But, you know, this is I think the people who are… cultures will absolutely see things in in my work that they can relate to wherever they’re from, you know, Guadalupe, Haiti or Burkina Faso, you know. But yeah, I guess, outside of that, you know, as specific as I’m being, I think there’s a way that people who aren’t of a culture can also recognise universality in a specific piece of work, or a piece of work that speaks to something specific. I think chasing that is a fallacy. But, yeah, I mean, I think humanity is an exercise in empathy, isn’t it? So yeah, I speculate as to how other people who don’t necessarily have that first hand knowledge of what my work speaks of, can find their way in. But you know, you’d have to ask people who watch it. But yeah, it Yeah, it is. It is a speculation on my part. Yeah, drawing those parallels, I think, I think there’s a lot more around, you know… if we care to pay attention, there’s a lot more that kind of binds us than than makes us different. Yeah.
RM: Yeah. Absolutely. And then kind of focusing in specifically on Blackness. And you mentioned the disaggregation of Blackness. And, similarly, have mentioned the vastness of Blackness and the deeper level to which we sit with our collective cultures as we have found ourselves all over the world as Africans. What do you feel is, I guess, the sort of issue with this, and how do you aim to respond to this within your work? I guess it’s quite a big question, because there’s a lot going on within that, but what does that kind of disaggregation of Blackness mean to you? And how does that play out within your work?
BA: I think it’s just like a lifetime of unpacking innit.
RM: Yeah, yeah, I guess literally.
BA: That’s all like, yeah, that’s, you know, I’m not an academic. I don’t write papers and stuff. But yeah, like, you know, there’s a real understanding… you know, when I was a kid, right, when I was a kid in school in Wembley, primary school in Wembley, and I remember there was… people were like, you know, this is the ’80s. So I come from Ghana, people like, ‘Guyana?’, you know, like, there was like an automatic assumption that, like, in the ’80s, if you’re Black, you were West Indian, you were Caribbean, you know. The Caribbean influence, the West Indian influence on Black British culture is immense and huge and undeniable. And I’m very much kind of… I came up in that.
But I think it was quite interesting, kind of, when I talk to my cousins who grew up in America, and they were like, you know, you don’t want to draw attention to the fact that you’re not like, African American, you know, unless, like, you know, East Brooklyn you could be Caribbean or, you know, there’s like, pockets that the Bronx is super Ghanian, or whatever. But, um, but yeah, I mean, there’s this thing, there’s this kind of like, tidal, this tide that pulls us as Black folks into like, the monolith, right?
I mean, even more now, there’s like BAME, you know, cause they like, it’s like, it pulls us… It’s like, this is like a thing that is constantly kind of at play in various contexts. Both at a micro and a macro level. And, you know, the unpacking that I speak of, is really just to kind of breathe and understand that it’s, there’s like, a million different ways you can be Black, you know, and that’s okay. And if there’s no like, rapper who’s repping your kind of Blackness, that’s also okay. Yeah, sorry, I think I’ve forgotten your question.
RM: No, no, no, that was great. No, that was, I think that was more than I asked, which is always amazing. And then, kind of, on a similar topic, one more question on the topic of the notions of plurality, you define a process of biomechanic anthropology within your work. Can you just talk to me a little bit about what that means to you and how that manifests?
BA: Yeah, I mean, that, that I’ve got a longstanding sort of interest in like, the body, and what that and what one body is able to do and how the body sort of presents… what that must– what that will mean for you in terms of like, quality of life, ease of life, you know, status. And, yeah, you know, when I was flirting with like, getting into the commercial game, into your game Ronan, I guess the only thing that I was really that interested in were, were kind of like talking, working with clients or musicians in the short form world who were up for me experimenting with different types of like, bodily movement, you know, different types of bodily presentation. That’s why, you know, my work around polio survivors and albinos in Tanzania. And, you know, and that also connects to like, the Capoeiristas – who were my my Mestres, I used to train them before my knees went.
Yeah, all of that, you know, Capoeira is born of oppression. And, you know, that kind of survival. That survivalism that kind of came out of those plantations in Brazil. But that was like, you know, literally centuries ago now. But then you’re talking about polio survivors who are skating around the streets of Accra, you know, trying to earn a living. But then they come together on a Sunday to be like, you know, everybody else who wants to play a bit of football with their mates, you know. But I think it’s really interesting with all of these sorts of of explorations that come out in different bits of work, that they all sort of speak to, kind of, how people, different types of Black people, African descended culture… they will speak to kind of how people are regarded, you know, and how, and therefore, how they are able to kind of go about their business.
Yeah, in a way that kind of provides them dignity, or not, you know, and sometimes faithfully. Yeah, I mean, that’s always, that’s the anthropological element of kind of investigating that is very much kind of, you know, hinges on what one’s body can do. You know, how well can you disguise your meia lua de compasso as a dance instead of like as training to fight? Yeah. You know, how well can you play football if you’ve got, you know, disfigured limbs from polio? Yeah. How, how safe you are playing a game of football if your albino limbs are fetishised and hunted for all sorts of, you know, misguided, but traditional beliefs that put your life in danger? All these things are quite interesting.
RM: Yeah, and within that you kind of touched on a couple of the films that are in the programme. So could you tell us about why you’ve chosen the works for this programme? And how they kind of speak to you? And yeah, what the collection is?
BA: Yeah, well, the good people at Alchemy were, like, you know, we want to put a programme together. And I was like, alright. But, you know, I’m quite, you know, aside from what’s in the programme, the other thing I spent a lot of my time doing, was directing, and telling long form sort of narratives for initially documentary, and then TV drama. So, so the, the short works in this programme are very much, kind of, what I was doing in between TV drama gigs. And also, I was doing them because I was interested in sort of playing with all the things we were just talking about, but also different ways of making work, making imagery. TV dramas are very rigid, sort of, way of doing things. And it’s great training, you know, I didn’t go to film school, or art school.
So, you know, you have to find your formation somewhere. And that’s kind of doing the work. The short works in this programme, sort of, allowed me to kind of work on my sort of aesthetic formation. And, you know, the sort of green, the green screens, visual effects stuff, sort of the technical formation, whilst doing the sort of bog standard telly drama stuff gave me, you know, a bit more craft on a larger scale. I think Leave the Edges is kind of a culmination of those two things, those two sort of tracks kind of coming together.
RM: Right. Yeah. Yeah. Cause I was gonna ask, even within a couple of the shorter films that you did, specifically in Let’s Dance, I noticed a sort of similarity in the plurality of sort of storytelling, even in the sort of way that she is repeated in the screen. And I wondered if that was purposeful or if that was just sort of, kind of, happened. Because I sort of read it as that repetition that I saw play out in some of your other films, Leave the Edges and some of the others in the programme. And so I wondered if that was the repeated movement that she does in Let’s Dance was purposeful or if that was, just, I guess part of the exploration?
BA: No, it was, on purpose. Eno is a wonderful singer and performer. And when we sat and talked about the track and what she was doing with the track, and the band, I mean, you know, the whole sort of system. But it was very much about her, I think, I think what she brings to, like a bunch of talented musicians is a real kind of sense of identity, you know. But yeah, I think we work with a choreographer called Nandi Bhebhe who’s immense, and we started breaking down kind of elements of movement. I mean, I’m, I’m always fascinated by dancers and movement artists, and we did, how we could get a sense of scale, with with not much money.
And part of that idea was to kind of, one, break down the, the choreography into elements that kind of are present in the multitrack of like, you know, what the, what the baseline is doing, and, you know, what, what certain drums are doing. And then, like, a multitrack, like, we, you know, we built we built, we built the visual up like, someone within a studio layering up a track, that was the idea. And, and that gave us a visual motif to work with. And I think that, you know, I’m quite interested in what you can do with visual motifs of repetition. Because, you know, physically, physically, it’s that thing, isn’t it? You know, I’m really interested in like, sports, and athletes, and all kinds of different forms of virtuosity, and ultimately just comes with repetition. You want to be good at something, repeat it a lot. You’ll be really good. So I think there’s something quite simple and beautiful and profound about repetition that I’m always quite drawn to.
RM: Yeah. Yeah. And I wanted to also touch on your interest in virtual reality. And like sort of how you feel about the VR experience providing further insight and context and sort of traditional film mechanisms and storytelling. Also sort of linking to, again, to Leave the Edges where there was foresee was one of the words that came up in it that I thought was really interesting, because it’s sort of linked to futurism. And sort of the whole VR and VFX. I’ve sort of read as quite futuristic when I was kind of delving deeper into your work. So yeah, I just wanted to talk a little bit about your interest in VR. And if there is an element of futurism in that.
BA: Um, yeah, I mean, the digital revolution, we’re in it, right. No, getting away from that. The… it’s hard to talk about the future of it, because I think everyone’s trying to get… Right now, and my next project is, is going to be augmented reality, rather than virtual reality. I think there’s a, there’s something inherently more accessible about AR. And it’s just because of what, how the medium is it forces the digital kind of to meet the built environment in a way that I think could be quite interesting and more more profound for now. You know, where we are now.
Yeah, I, you know, they’re… I’ve got, I’ve got just a longstanding interest in what technology is doing. And I think there’s a lot that’s kind of converging at the moment in a really kind of inexorable fashion, like, you just can’t argue that the future is happening right before our eyes, right. Where that’s going to take us is something I’m really interested in finding out, but not as an observer, but you know, as somebody who’s playing with it. Yeah. So, in a sense, yeah, I’m very sort of interested in the future of visual mediums, visual technology. Yeah, how much these new, how much these things will replicate the storytelling tradition that we’ve had, you know, through traditional cinema? I’m not so sure. But I’m really interested in finding out.
RM: Yeah, cause, again, there’s just a couple more things I wanted to talk about. Because within your work, especially within Leave the Edges, I was reading that you, you were, you have an enjoyment of stillness. And, and within Leave the Edges, I’ve really noticed that. And I sort of really appreciated the time that I had as the viewer to sort of take in all the information from all of the different scenes. And I wanted to ask and talk a little bit about that time that you’ve taken, and why it’s so important to give that time to scenes that may not necessarily be kind of often seen, or often appreciated, sort of the way that you focus the lens, especially in Leave the Edges with the dancer when we just seeing her feet, and we’re seeing her feet for what it feels like quite a while in the best sort of sense. And yeah, where that kind of perspective came from and, and how you learn to take time and why that is important to you.
BA: Really, you’re on it today, man. All right. Now, normally, you don’t have to, I’d have to think about this stuff. Let alone articulate…
RM: It’s one thing that I really noticed, and I really don’t feel that we get to do especially when seeing ourselves – I say that as a Black person – portrayed. And we’re not necessarily often given the time. And I really appreciated that within the works, all of the works that I saw on the programme. I wanted to just talk about that a little bit.
BA: There’s a real propensity in commercial filmmaking to just to cut a lot, you know? Yeah. And listen, I love a good action film, you know. Hope to make one one day. Definitely. I’m gonna blow stuff up and do quick cuts. But this is not that. I think part of the reason why, you know, Leave the Edges came about because I got– I stepped away from making TV. Yeah. Still working on the feature film, but they take forever developmentally to get the script right and financing and all that stuff. So but, but getting off the TV treadmill means that I could breathe, right. And I think, also, just really look at the visual language I was interested in. I’m constantly asking myself about cinema and what it means to me.
And also, you know, what influences my cinema, my version of cinema. And, you know, when I come up with answers to those questions, it’s invariably you know, photographers like Salgado, Sebastião Salgado, or painters like Daniela Yohannes for Sola Olulode you know, in that and those, those things that are influences that are away from film and just sort of referencing other films. Suddenly, you just do take time to breathe and take it all in and you know, watch a still frame so, you know, I tend to enjoy making what I call moving portraits. And I’m sure not everything I’ll do will be that patient. But for now, yeah, that’s very much… and the conversations I was having with Yinka, the flamencan that you’re referencing and yeah, Maren the spiritualist who’s at the top of the film and the bookends to the work. You know, those conversations were about taking time, you know, taking our time with what we were talking about that dialogue between lens and subject. It wasn’t necessarily anything that was rushed on the day and didn’t need to be rushed in the edit either. So yeah.
RM: I think that I just have one last question. Kind of encompassing your body of work in this programme. I want to ask, obviously, as an artist making work that will last much beyond your years. How do you feel? Or does it influence your work that you’re a father? And if so, in what way?
BA: Yeah, legacy, right. I mean, yeah, legacy. I think that’s, you know, in a word, yeah, I, I’ve been a dad long… I’ve been… the age that I am now I’ve been a dad longer that I haven’t been a dad, you know? So I can’t imagine what it’s like not to be a parent at this point.
RM: Yeah. Yeah. I wonder how it is in terms of like, creating work thinking about… Because I was reading on being mentored by John Akomfrah in terms of, you know, what is cinema, who is cinema for, thinking about what, when you set out to make a piece of work who is that for? And I wondered if having children is kind of thinking about what they’re going to grow up seeing, how they see themselves, and those kind of ideas that you innately think about differently because you do have children. I sort of wondered if that was something that I guess maybe was at the front of the mind or at the back of the mind in terms of the work you make?
BA: Yeah, it’s a hard, it’s a hard one to answer because I just can’t separate. Yeah, differently to I mean, yeah, like what, you know, when I wasn’t, when I wasn’t a dad, I wasn’t making work. You know, I had no real aspirations. You know? So, yeah, I’ve been a dad for 21 years now, at this point. Um, my, quote unquote, ‘careers’ shorten that so…
RM: Wow, that’s interesting.
BA: Is it? In what way?
RM: I’m not sure. I guess. I don’t know why. It feels somewhat unusual in my mind, as we discuss, but I don’t really know if it is or isn’t.
BA: I think you’re right, it is unusual. You know, my friends weren’t having kids until much later. So I fully appreciate it’s not, it’s not usual so it means I don’t know quite how to answer your question. You know, like, I take, I take my kids on shoots, and they get involved in my work. And they see stuff that I’m making. And, and in that sense, you know not the, not the TV drama stuff. Because invariably, I’m away in a facility somewhere, but all my stuff. Yeah, you know, you bring it home with you. You’re working on it at home. You’re reviewing cuts and you’re…
RM: Yeah, absolutely.
BA: I mean, my kids, you know, my lad was holding the boom on that beach in Leave the Edges, like he was shitting himself…
RM: I think I was thinking of it in terms of sort of, like, art as a practice making work as an artist can be somewhat a selfish pursuit when it comes to making something that is for one soul and one soul only. So I think being a parent, it’s not just your one soul that is in the, is at the core of your life. I would imagine… I’m not a parent, so I don’t speak from personal experience. But I I think it’s really interesting to kind of think about having not one at the centre of a practice and maybe having others at the centre of practice. Obviously, you know, you were maybe not practicing before the children. So I mean, we don’t… it’s not like, don’t want to, like make the conversation about that. But it’s just yeah, I think it’s…
BA: I think there’s definitely a whole kind of line of… there’s a whole conversation you’re constantly having with your kids, you know, about life, about the world, about the way you see things, about how they see things. You know, it’s a constant dialogue. And I think it’s no different from the other dialogues at play when, you know, when you’re making work, particularly when you have a subject that you’re conversing with. So, so in that sense, I think that, you know, that’s kind of relevant, perhaps, but, but yeah, I mean, it’s really, it’s really interesting how, as they get older, more cognisant of the world they see around them.
You see, well, I see them asking the same questions I was asking, or that I still ask and, you know, that motivate me in my artistic practice, right? So, so suddenly, you’re having these conversations with your kids and it’s informing your work and the conversations you’re having around work, regardless. Yeah, it’s hard to separate. It’s hard to make distinction. I will say that it’s, you know, I enjoy that. And that’s one of the things I’ve really enjoyed since I stepped away from TV to focus on the artistic practice is yeah, like, you know, really just talking about the world and the formation of, you know, politics, culture, everything that’s kind of going on in life right now, you know. In a way that feels more rather than: do my job. Whereas, yeah, when I was in a more commercial space and working for hire that wouldn’t really happen.
Ronan Mckenzie is a multidisciplinary artist from Walthamstow, North East London. Her work began in photography, but since has extended into directing, curation, sculpture and design. Mckenzie’s photographs have been exhibited at spaces including Aperture Foundation, Red Hook Labs, Somerset House and The National Theatre, and within the inaugural show at Mckenzie’s multi-functional art space HOME by Ronan Mckenzie. Notable within Mckenzie’s practice is a sensitivity to honest, relatable emotion and the celebration of individuality. Alongside working commercially and editorially, she lectures at universities and institutions. Her work is often tied together with her passion for creating more imagery and spaces to encourage and explore connections, tenderness relationships and black joy.