Millions of African soldiers, labourers and carriers participated in the First World War on the African continent and on the Western Front in Europe.
Artist John Akomfrah has created a new installation to commemorate those Africans who fought, served and died during the war. Mimesis: African Soldier was on display at IWM London from September 21st 2018 until 31 March 2019 as part of Making a New World, a season of exhibitions, installations and experiences exploring how the First World War has shaped the society we live in today.
The work is projected onto three screens and blends archive material and newly shot film recorded in locations around the world, highlighting the contributions made by Africans – and honouring the sacrifices they made.
Akomfrah says there is a ‘moral obligation’ to remember the men who gave their lives and to acknowledge that people from across Britain’s empire were involved.
‘There’s a way in which we talk about this country now which assumes it’s always been this fortress alone in the sea, doing its own fighting. But it’s not true. Absolutely untrue.'
‘And to remind people of that, it’s not about causing trouble or making mischief, It’s simply stating some of the historical facts that allow people to understand why we are where we are now.’
“I think most standing narratives about the Great War assume that this is almost entirely a European affair fought in Europe and devised and ended in Europe.
That's kind of partly true but the point to remember is that the Europe of the time was not the Europe, Europe was a much bigger place, okay. So, if you were Britain in Europe, you had colonies across the planet, you were a much bigger, bigger country then, then we are now. I mean, there are millions of people out there who had no idea the people of African origin, descent, heritage played any part in this so, I'd like them to know that.”
Akomfrah describes the process of making African Soldier as ‘a journey, an interesting one’, which involved seeking out research and resources from Africa, India, Europe and the United States of America.
‘I’m glad we did that because…it’s a bit like a jigsaw, except that the fragments are scattered to the four corners of the planet. It’s very much a kind of forensic history, piecing together tiny, tiny bits of stuff from across the planet which slowly builds to a kind of tapestry of quite incredible beauty in the end.’
“The bit of the work that I like the most is when you look at a huge painting or tapestry, the war, the Great War. And you're able to go into, you know that tiny corner, blow it up so a whole world emerges. So, I'm interested in this and the role of the African in the Great War because it allows us to get into the war itself and see universes almost inside it populated by different groups all of them had their own reasons for doing this, you know. If you're a West African in 1914, you’re from a colony. And if you came from the colony to fight in the war that made no difference to your status as a colonial subject. You fought. If you were lucky to survive in 1918 you went back. Nothing changes, exactly the same space that you were in before you left. Which goes against most of the reasons why people fight. You know, you fight in wars, you think we're gonna get better. Not if you're an African.”
Past and present
Having created the work, he would like visitors to leave understanding something of the involvement of Africans in the First World War.
‘The most important thing for me, the takeaway, is that African soldiers fought in this war, that they played a variety of roles in the war as foot soldiers, as carriers. Every facet, every avenue, every job in the war, if you look long enough, you will see someone of either Asian or African origin, heritage in that role.’
“I think it's really important that this is being showcased. 1, in a museum, in a British Museum because in the main our focus is on British subjects of colour who, who lost their lives, but I also think it's important that it is at the imperial. You know, we can't help our past. Our past is our past but, but we can shape our present in interesting ways, in productive ways, in useful ways. The past is the past, you can’t, you know, you can't change that. We can certainly help people understand it more but what's important is how we orchestrate that understanding in the present. So, I'm very happy that it's going to be at the Imperial War Museum with the emphasis on the word imperial, yes.”
The work was seen for the first time by visitors to IWM London. When the museum was founded in 1917, it was originally intended it would be known as the National War Museum. But its name was changed to Imperial War Museum so 'India and the Dominions would feel that their part in the War would be permanently commemorated in the centre of the Empire'.
Although the Empire has since dissolved and the world has changed significantly, the museum still collects and displays material that tells the story of the war by those who experienced it and Akomfrah says he is ‘happy’ his work is going to be shown in the museum.
However, he believes that once the work is out in the world, it is the audience who will determine what happens next.
‘My wish is that it would be a kind of sensational encounter that people are moved, that they find it illuminating that they learned something, all the rest of it…. I have to bring the work and a viewer together. And from that point on, my job is done.
‘It’s a bit like running with a baton. At some point I shove it into the hands of the viewer and go, ‘Buh-bye. Off you go’.‘
Mimesis: African Soldier is co‐commissioned by New Art Exchange, Nottingham, Smoking Dogs Films and 14‐18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary.