Header image: Benedict Johnson
We love celebrating the work of creatives all around the world! As part of our Artists Around The World series, we recently chatted with the incredibly talented Larry Achiampong. Larry is a multi-media British-Ghanaian artist and has recently launched his first major solo exhibition at Turner Contemporary in Margate titled 'Wayfinder'. Larry works primarily in film, sculpture, installation, sound, collage, music and performance. He draws many of his references from popular culture, including comics, graphic novels and video games, as well as from his Akan heritage. He is a recipient of the Stanley Picker Fellowship (2020), the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Award for Artists (2019) and he is a Jarman Award-nominated artist (2018 & 2021). We were lucky enough to chat to Larry over Zoom all about his exciting new exhibition, what inspires him as an artist and learn more about his Ghanaian roots...
Tell us a little about yourself and how you became an artist
My parents are both Ghanaian, from a city called Kumasi which is just a bit North of Accra. They met there and started their relationship in Ghana. They came over to the UK in the late 70’s; they left in a time of great unrest and they wanted to raise a family in a place where they were safe and their family would be safe. They went back to Ghana and came back to the UK again in ‘84 when they had me. I was born in Bethnal Green in East London and grew up there for 16 years of my life. I lived there with my Mum and Dad but mostly my Mum because they broke up when I was much younger. I also spent a bit of time living with my Dad in Dagenham in Essex. I’m from a lower-working class background, I experienced poverty as a kid, I never went to museums and things like that. I experienced art through things like music, films, video games - through popular culture. I think it’s safe to say, personally, in terms of my approach to making whether that’s through the use of sound, objects, film. Whatever I do, I tend to bring a lot of the connection towards my relationship with those aspects of popular and mainstream cultures. It’s something that I continue to do to this day and I think is quite evident in the show at Turner Contemporary.
Are there any specific pieces of pop culture that have been particularly influential to you?
I would say the work of Alan Moore definitely speaks to me, I’m a big fan of the watchmen comics. But I also really love the series that was released a few years ago, I thought that really extended an already compelling story in a direction that meant something personally. For me, the only shortcoming of the original was the relationships to women and also that of race. There is a graphic novel I read years ago called Incognegro by Mat Johnson. I really love that graphic novel, it’s set during the early 1930’s and it focuses on a black person who can pass for white. It’s kind of like a neo-noir novel that talks a lot about experiences towards racism in a very smart way with some real twists and turns within its story. I loved the X-Men comics when I was growing up as well, especially the onslaught saga. I think the thing that spoke to me most about the X-Men was again, the approach to the treatment of race. Essentially, you have Professor Xavier as a Martin Luther King type character and Magnito as Malcom X. The conversation it raised around prejudice was to me, quite incredible. The way they talk about these human beings who have these powers inside them and are treated differently within society - basically a future version of the world. A lot of that stuff has sat with me, even when it comes to Marvel Cinematic Universe films and all that stuff, I love it! I watch a lot of this stuff, I have a collection of these things, my kids enjoy watching some of the same things as well. I have 2 kids, a 13-year-old and an 8-year-old. I quite enjoy sharing those moments with my children as a parent. Graphic novels for me really captivate an audience through literature in nuanced ways whilst also having a cool energy to go with that. It’s interesting how mainstream cinema has used comic books more and more, whether it’s your typical comic book character or as frames of references.
A still from the 'Wayfinder' film
A lot of your work focuses on an imagined future, how do you see your future developing as an artist?
Good question! I moved out of London 2 years ago, so I moved out just as the first lockdowns were happening. Funnily enough, at that point in time, before we became more aware of how serious coronavirus was, I’d already got to a point personally in my career where I was aware of how expensive it was to live in London. I want to do this stuff until I’m old, I want to be making as an old person. I know when people think about artists that they think mostly just about youth. I think that’s an unfortunate thing because as people get older they have even more wisdom and interesting things to bestow to people simply because of the experiences they’ve had. That’s also important to me from a cultural point of view in terms of my Akan heritage. In terms of the Wayfinder film, we had Britain's first black female olympian, Anita Neil, that kind of story is important. The reason I say that is because I moved to Essex and it’s finally quiet where I live, it’s dead quiet. There aren’t many people around, and most people my age would probably want the opposite thing! They want London, they want the bright lights, they want all of it. Where I am now is right by the Thames, there’s a lot of greenery and personally it’s really good for me. It keeps me grounded, especially in relation to my family. Having that quietness is important for me to be able to think and build and make as dynamically as I do. I can’t do that in the city. In some respects I do miss some of the noise of London, where I grew up mostly. It was just by Bethnal Green road. I could distinguish the sounds of a black cab motor from a number eight bus. I miss those things, but having said that I know it’s easy to get caught up in chaos in the art scene. I just want to make things. I don’t think there’s enough time in the day to be able to say all the things I want to say. I know in my lifetime I won’t be able to make everything I want to make and that’s okay, it is what it is. I see what I’m doing as a long stretch. I’ve been making since I graduated from my MA in 2008, so it’s nearly 15 years. I still feel that I’m very young in it all. I want to be doing this for a long time. So in terms of looking at the longevity, especially in the kinds of times that are ahead of us. Unfortunately, things are going to get easy, they’re going to get more expensive. I want to be doing this until I die, and hopefully I’m an old person at that point! I do like to think ahead quite a lot, and I think that’s part of my nature. If we focus on my films for example, as that’s when I’m very speculative, I’m very much about that future and thinking about its relationship with the past. I believe that the lives that we lead are very much like cycles and the way, for example, parents are able to see themselves in their children; it is like a second childhood.
We know you have a connection to Margate, could you tell us a little more about that?
There’s a massive connection to Margate. I kind of say this cheekily laughing, because there’s a lot of artists I know have moved out there. I went there as a kid, in 2 guises. I would be taken out there by my mum and dad when they were together with the churches they were attending at the time. I don’t know if it happens there culturally still in Margate but we would get taken out on coaches and witness or partake in baptisms in the sea. It was weird just coming to this town that was quite small, looking out across the water, tasting the salt in the sea. It was this almost unspeakable, incredible moment of people dunking their heads under the water and being blessed. And then also I would come out to Margate through these subsidised coaches that the council set up. We called them the £1 coaches because you’d pay a pound and your whole family could go out in the summer. We’d go out every summer and I’d save up my pennies to spend on those machines in the amusement arcades or at Dreamland. So yeah, I’d already had a relationship with the area and known about it for a long time and so when I was invited to do the show it felt like a homecoming of sorts. I connected with being there as a kid and some of the experiences I had. That was important for me in the process of developing the Wayfinder film actually.
What is it that attracts you to the media of film, is it something you’ve always worked in?
No, it’s not something I’ve always worked in. In fact, I never even studied filmmaking formally. I went to art school but I never really studied it. I learned through watching VHSs and DVDs as I grew up. I’ll watch anything! I watch all kinds of films, I try not to be prejudiced of one type of style over another. I pick from so many different situations and references. I love when a set piece is orchestrated very well. From the script writing process to the use of sound through to the choice of environment, let alone that of grading and the editing process. I involve myself in so much of it, that’s what I do. It’s a storytelling medium that I feel you can occupy so many different places at once. I feel that with the films that i make I am occupying the past, the present and the future all at once. That’s the cool thing about utilising the power of film; it allows me to galvanise and bring together so many skills and facets of myself, but also allows for collaborating with others. There are other people, of course, who worked on this film. The likes of Reece Straw, Hayleigh-Joy Rose, Nephertiti Oboshie Schandorf, Perside Rodrigues. I enjoy the process of collaborating, inviting people, creating spaces where people can lend what they have to the table. It’s a very special medium. I’ve only actually made about 10 or 11 films but there’s so much more that I want to do. Like i said, I’ve got so many ideas but this stuff takes time. I’m just excited to learn. I don’t shoot with the best cameras, I shoot with cameras that are affordable but will allow me to push the fidelity. We shot with Sony A7S cameras, for example, which are great in low light, but they’re much cheaper than your usual industry standard type of kit. I’ve been field recording for years, I create my own soundtrack as well. This time around, however, I challenged myself with creating orchestral driven soundtracks that were quite unprocessed. I could go on forever, but that’s kind of a pinch of what intrigues me about the medium of film and cinema.
Image from Larry Achiampong's "Glyth Series"
So, would you say that your creative process is always very collaborative?
In some respects. It depends on the kind of work or the series; like the Glyth series isn’t really that collaborative I’d say. It is in the sense that I talk to family about the photos that I’ve collected, or they’ll give me photos to use. I’m the one that holds onto the family photos. Then with music, I make the audio quite often by myself, there are moments where I’ll collaborate with someone but I think film is the place where a lot of collaborative function happens. As well as even when building my instillations, and when it comes to building an actual show itself, that’s when collaboration is key. For example, the show at Turner Contemporary, working with their installation and invigilation team. They were very hands-on and helpful with the whole process, they were amazing to work with.
We found your Glyth series particularly moving. How did your family feel about the Glyth series of photographs?
My mum talks to me the most about them, because she has the strongest connection with the photos. I know everyone in the photos, but some of them are before my time, some of them do include me. Me and my mum, over the years we’ve constantly had very deep conversations and I think the thing that I love about the conversations with my mum is we talk about real and harsh and deep stuff. She talks a lot to me about the harsh realities of her upbringing, the difficult situations she was put in as a child, the fact that she was sent to clean and work as a child when someone of her age should have been at school. She didn’t get to have an education in that respect. In some ways, I appreciate for some people that the imagery in the Glyth series is very difficult to look at. It is not as difficult for my mum. She’s been through a whole lot, and that’s before I’m even to talk about the difficulties of poverty that I went through. What I appreciate about talking to my mum is she’s an elder herself, is she’s somebody who’s gone through a lot of hard knocks and so I look up to her. For her to see her children being successful makes her successful. Some people react to the Glyth series and they say to me “this is racist” or similar, but this is the history of the United Kingdom, this is the history of the West, this is stuff that has been swept underneath the carpet but you don’t have to go too far to still find these kinds of things being sold. If you look at brands like Gucci, not too long ago they were selling similar imagery. It’s not too long ago, this stuff is all current, it is not historical and that’s the point that I try to make with this series. My mum has always been great, she’s always supported so much of my work. I try to see her at least once every week and she grounds me, says a little prayer for me, she holds my hand. I don’t bring her to every show but I bring her to the moments that I feel are quite pivotal and this show is a big moment. Bringing her and my dad to the show, they were just full of pride, my mum was in tears. It’s a journey of unspeakable measure and yet here we are and she’s able to feel that sense of pride amidst a journey that has been filled with so much chaos and trauma. She’s an amazing woman.
Have you been back to Ghana since becoming an artist?
Yes, I have actually. Weirdly enough, I went to Ghana last year around September which was the first time in pretty much 25 years. I just hadn’t been, if i'm honest, just because of working constantly, having 2 young kids and trying to make ends meet. It’s not a cheap ticket to purchase! All that stuff, responsibilities, comes into play but I decided it was time to make time. I went out there, I saw my brother who I hadn’t seen for such a long time, as well as other members of my family. It was beautiful to go back home, because it is home for me. The interesting thing of course is I grew up mostly in the UK but one of things I find most difficult, which inspired the process of making Wayfinder, is losing a sense of home. For many of us, we’re priced out of areas we used to call home, but the beauty in going to Ghana was that the foundations had never truly been severed. It was great that my mum raised me and my siblings to understand and speak Twi, to speak Akan and it was beautiful to be speaking with people other than my mum and dad in Twi. It was amazing to do that, and the intention was actually to go 2 years prior to that but because of the pandemic it just wasn’t possible. There’s a project I want to do over there as well so that revisiting was really special and important for me. I intend to not leave it so long the next time. I have the dual-heritage and that heritage of the Ghanaian side is very important to me and without it I don’t think the work that I’ve made exists in the way that it does.
Larry welcomes People Dem Collective to his Wayfinder exhibition at Turner Contemporary
We know you met with People Dem Collective before the opening of your exhibition, how important is it to you that other POC feel represented by your work?
I’ve known about People Dem for a while actually in relation to when the film was being made. I remember someone reached out to me who was working with People Dem Collective and as the conversation with Turner built up, I spoke a lot about how local communities are important to the work that I do. Those said communities tend to usually be pushed to the periphery or obliterated out of it and ostracised. Education has always been important with my work and so I wanted to be able to create a space where People Dem Collective would feel connected. Some of the things I spoke about with Kelly and Victoria was the potential of members of the lived experience crew being able to see the show before anyone else, really remixing what a private view usually is. Not looking at the usual suspects and inviting those but actually welcoming the people who are just ignored and have so much to give to the UK and their local communities and allowing them to experience that. So over a period of time, just before the show opened, i got to meet some incredible people from the lived experience crew who talked about their work and it was great for me to shut up and listen and to be honoured enough to be invited into their space to listen, to look and to have the space to be able to ask questions. In return, they were then invited to Turner before any of the private views happened and they were given full realm to be able to experience the show themselves and it was really beautiful and very emotional. Of course, the work is emotional itself so that was quite a lot for people, it was nice to have a shared space to experience that. For me, this stuff isn’t new. This is the way that I have worked from the beginning. It is about community. I know it’s become more and more of a popular thing and I hope that it doesn’t get used as a fad. I have the knowledge and experience of how a lot of this stuff tends to work and having worked in education myself and dealings outside of the art scene, I know how it gets treated as a second thought. It’s a reason why I decided on the idea of the gaming room with Bea and Toby at Turner Contemporary. The idea was to make this show, especially the education space, to be as equal as every other part of the show. Doing it in a way that it deserves, giving it justice, this education space is for kids, for adults, and elders. (We loved the Games Room! It’s such a unique concept, we’re not sure anyone has ever done anything like that before) No, I’m not sure they have, and I’m saying that as a gamer! I am somebody who is a fan of that type of popular culture and I know that gaming has become more and more of a bigger thing and a conversation, especially where art and art-making has been concerned. But I feel like it’s been treated as a fad if I'm honest with you. The virtual and new technologies have been looked at but if you scrape beneath the surface of work that is being made, there isn’t really much of a love for the culture. And we’re talking about incredible people who build amazing cosplays, or make their own worlds within the worlds of games that exist. As far as I’m concerned, it's a simple idea that hasn't been done before, not in a way that is also speaking true of the person that I am. I think about the early 2000’s when I studied my BA, gaming was ostracised, you didn't talk about gaming as an artist because you feared being thought of as somebody who is juvenile or a delinquent. To have that opportunity to simply take over and do things in a way that I know that people can respond to, and respond to genuinely, is a great moment for me. It’s so special to see people responding. The other day I came in and spoke with some of the invigilators and they were saying that they haven't seen the building light up in such a way before, and that to me is what it’s about.
Finally, do you have any advice for young creatives?
I think my advice is especially for those who are oppressed, not trying to throw shade, but those who have privilege have space that those from a disadvantaged background don’t. I think the internet is a special space but it can work in both a positive and a negative respect. Find those who connect with you, organise, get together, have a place where you can look after each other. You can build piece by piece, don’t rush the process, think about life not like a race. If you try and do that you’ll run into this neo-liberal model, just doing things where you’re not actually breathing. Your voice does matter. Fragility is important too. For those who are lucky enough to go to University, just know that University isn’t the only place you can learn from. There are other ways to learn, I was lucky enough to go to Uni through bursaries that I won through competitions. But I learnt a lot of my artistic practice outside of an institution, such as filmmaking and music. Get together and take your time with it.
We'd like to say a huge thank you to Larry for taking the time to speak with us. If you haven't yet visited his incredible exhibition Wayfinder at Turner Contemporary, you can do so until 19 June 2022. Tickets are available here.