Speech given for John Akomfrah CBE being awarded an Honourary Doctorate from University of the West of England.

20 July 2018 – Bristol Cathedral

Shawn Sobers cathedral
(Photograph by Stella Quinlivan)


Deputy Vice Chancellor,

It gives me great pleasure to give this speech in the event of John Akomfrah being awarded an honorary doctorate, in acknowledgment of his services to film and the visual arts. With a career spanning over 36 years, from his award winning debut film Handsworth Songs in 1985, John Akomfrah has always been seen to be working at the cutting edge of filmmaking, with a bold, unique, visual style, fused with an equally bold commentary on British society and cultural relations.

Speaking personally, when I was still at school in the 80s, when John’s debut Handsworth Songs made with Black Audio Film Collective came on Channel 4, I was just a regular kid, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I remember the moment it came on tv well, as it blew my mind, and I recorded it on VHS! (Who remembers those?) I had never seen a film like it before; a beautiful, complex film and it had an effect on me.

Handsworth Songs made such a mark on British filmmaking, in how original and unique it looked, it was difficult to see where the career of such a new filmmaker would develop. 

Again, speaking personally, when I eventually made a decision about my future and went to university to study film and photography in the early 90s, I found that VHS tape, and re-acquainted myself with John’s career. I was in awe to witness, from that point onwards, John’s career continue to be at the forefront of narrative innovation, with even more cutting edge work being produced at every stage.  His film ‘Seven Songs for Malcolm’, about Malcolm X, was significant for me and influenced how I tried to make my own documentary films in my early career.

It is difficult to pin down and articulate John’s style – ranging from fast-cutting, multi-layered, textured visuals of original and archive images, slow-long take moving stills with poetic voice-over narrations, through to multiple screen large scale physical installations – such as Vertigo Sea, exhibited in the Arnolfini gallery in 2016.

The one thing John has never failed to do, is surprise. His services to film were acknowledged in the Queen’s Honours List in 2008, when he was awarded an OBE, and he was again acknowledged last year and awarded a CBE. Over the years, he has been nominated for, and won, a long list of awards, including in 1997 winning the Paul Robeson Award for The Last Angel of History, in 2011 the Sheffield Documentary Innovation Award for his film The Nine Muses, in 2012 winning the European Cultural Foundation’s Princess Margaret Award, and winning the coveted Artes Mundi prize last year for his, to quote, “substantial body of outstanding work dealing with issues of migration, racism and religious persecution“.

I would say the quality that joins the dots through all of his works in his extensively productive career, is that of innovation. Making things in a way that had not been done before, making connections between things that would not have previously been thought possible.

The University of the West of England is an institution that embraces the practice of innovation, and is encouraged, if not expected, from our undergraduates and postgraduates – which can be witnessed in their end of year shows – and our teaching and research staff – which can be witnessed in the fantastic work of my colleagues.

It is a great pleasure for me to confer this award to a true pioneer in his field, who has been recognised as an innovator of international acclaim.

Deputy Vice Chancellor, on behalf of the university and in recognition of his contribution and commitment to arts and moving image, I present John Akomfrah for the award of Doctor of Arts, honoris causa.

John Akomfrah(Photograph by Stella Quinlivan. John recieving the award by Deputy Vice Chancellor Jane Harrington)

Shawn Sobers and John Akomfrah


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