Handsworth Songs with Ian Sergeant


Screening of Handsworth Songs (John Akomfrah, UK, 1986) with visiting curator Ian Sergeant.

“I was a budding filmmaker and a founding member of Black Pyramid Film & Video Project, in Bristol 1994, when I first saw the films of Black Audio Film Collective, now Smoking Dogs. Truth is Black Pyramid’s establishment was inspired by the UK’s black film workshop movement of the 1980s, through organisations including Black Audio, Ceddo, Sankofa and Retake.

These film collectives came into being partly due to the emergence of Channel Four Television in 1982, a government funded, public broadcasting service. Channel 4’s remit was to; in short, provide a platform to stimulate the independent production sector, commission programmes showcasing Britain’s diversity. Whilst, the implementation of the ACCT Workshop Declaration of 1982 provided much needed financial investment through a franchise system, whereby companies such as Black Audio received financial support to make films, pay its workers and had a platform for their work to be seen through the likes of Channel Four.

Smoking Dogs archives spans nearly four decades from its early intervention of slide-tape productions such as Expeditions 1: Signs of Empire (1984), made whilst the collective were still undergraduates. To current multi-screen gallery based works such as Vertigo Sea, The Airport and The Unfinished Conversation.

Since its inception in the 80s their work has contributed significantly to discourse of race, identity, politics and belonging in Britain, partly inspired by Stuart Hall and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. Whilst interweaving and collaborating with the emergent black art group practitioners in Britain of the 1980s that include Rodney, Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers and Sonya Boyce, among many others.

Their productions have punctuated my practice, as recently as 2016, two films The Genome Chronicles and Three Songs on Pain Light and Time featured during my curated exhibition Reimaging Donald Rodney, a programme of exhibition and events exploring digital legacy and identity through the work of Black British artist Donald Rodney (1961 – 1998). In 2013 as part of Vivid Projects 33 Revolutions, Who Needs a Heart, provided context for an interrogation of the controversial, yet little known British black power figure that was Michael X.

Handsworth Songs is probably Smoking Dogs most screened production, every year during Black History Month (October) in the UK, and at other critical times in relation to and in reflection of the black British experience, somewhere Handsworth Songs is being screened to a new and eager audience. But why is this film still as relevant today as it was almost 31 years ago?

Reece Auguiste a founding member of Black Audio spoke of the construction of Handsworth Songs in The Ghost of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Collective, by Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar. Auguiste highlights the existence of extensive archival materials related to the historical black British and colonial experience, which pre-empted and contributed to the making of Songs, stating;

“For Black Audio Film Collective, the archive constitutes a privileged terrain of knowledge: in archival texts we were confronted with fragments residues of histories of migration, memories of the joy and pains of settlement, of grim possibility of having to consolidate the experiences of arrival and often how best to make sense of rejection in the face of hostility and social indifference”.

The recent decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union has further problematized the notion of identity and belonging for many Britons, both those who voted to remain and those who voted to leave.

Therefore, Handsworth Songs’ poetic depiction still resonates today with the UK in a period of uncertainty, especially for people of colour who have had to constantly question our sense of belonging.” — Ian Sergeant

UK-based curator Ian Sergeant is a visiting artist at Rebuild Foundation. He was a founding member of Black Pyramid Film and Video, Bristol, which provided training in film production, as well as producing films and hosting an annual film festival. He has since worked for several arts and cultural institutions, including The Drum Arts Centre (Birmingham), New Art Exchange (Nottingham) where he has continued to programme films and moving image. He is an associate producer at Vivid Projects, who are dedicated to exploring the convergence of film, video, performance and interdisciplinary practice. Recent projects include Free School and Fear of a Black Space. Ian is currently a Director of Ort Gallery, an artist-led gallery space in Birmingham and Honorary Research Associate of the Department of Digital Humanities, University of Birmingham.