John Akomfrah’s extraordinary survey at the New Museum, “Signs of Empire,” should be required viewing for those who consider themselves activists, artists, critics or leaders — or people who simply want to expand their worldview.
His four video installations, which take up the museum’s entire second floor, explore postcolonial history, nature and migration. And several films, including his best-known work, “The Last Angel of History” (1995), serving as an investigation into the origins of Afrofuturism — how culture from Africa and the African diaspora intersects with technology — are screening on Wednesdays in the museum’s basement.
Mr. Akomfrah, a Ghanaian-born, British artist who is receiving his first museum survey exhibition in the United States, emerged as an artist with the Black Audio Film Collective, a group formed in England in 1982 after the racially charged Brixton riots of 1981. Together they created the earliest work here, “Expeditions One: Signs of Empire” (1983). Its title comes from the Roland Barthes book “Empire of Signs” (1970), which used semiotics to explore Japanese culture. But this video suggests that the African diaspora lacks a similar, cohesive system of cultural codes. (The sly inversion of Barthes’s title suggests how colonialism erased these ties.) In the absence of written archives or histories — particularly with displaced peoples — these codes might be conjured or created through film and video.
What’s most notable about this show — beyond the weight of history and the creation of new cultural vocabularies, or the identifying of overlooked ones — is Mr. Akomfrah’s facility in working with moving images on multiple screens. This method of presentation allows him to create works whose nonlinear development echoes newly evolving ideas about history and culture in philosophy and postmodern and postcolonial theory. “The Unfinished Conversation” (2012) is a brilliant example of this, a three-channel work that takes as its subject the Jamaican-born intellectual Stuart Hall, who says in the film that “identities are formed at the unstable point where personal lives meet the narrative of history,” adding, “Identity is an ever-unfinished conversation.”