press release

When they hear the word “purple,” few people think of a strange pact rather than a colour. But in this case purple refers to the pact between a sea snail and the human race. The substance that animal secretes when it feels threatened is the colour we have chosen to symbolize power. What power? Ours: the simple power of destroying what surrounds us, of putting ourselves on a higher level than all other life forms, of thinking that the world exists to serve us. On the Internet we read that purple dye was actually discovered by another animal, a dog belonging to Herakles, the hero from Greek mythology. The dog walked around with a purple mouth until Herakles discovered that his dyed snout was due to his playful munching on the murex snails that littered the beaches along the coast of the Levant.

Purple, an immersive installation consisting of six screens, is an important visual reflection on the human world’s tremendous destructive power over the vast world of life. Akomfrah shows us the breach of what should have been an iron-clad contract for peaceful coexistence. The destruction of the marine habitat forms a terrifyingly enormous front of images. The screens welcome and immerse viewers in a great experiment that reveals how we have eliminated the conditions necessary for a habitat’s survival and our indifference to the extinction of plants and animals. As the images show, coastal areas suffer disproportionately from this ailment due to their proximity to human population centres. Habitat deterioration has a dramatic effect on the biodiversity of the entire ocean. Estuaries, swamps, marshes and other places vital to reproduction, the “nurseries” of practically every marine species, are at risk. And that great imbalance unleashes the fury of nature. Hurricanes, typhoons, storms, tsunamis and other weather phenomena further accentuate the massive upheavals in the life cycles of ocean plants and animals and, consequently, of humans. Swamps are dredged and used to build residential, industrial and agricultural structures. Cities, factories and farms generate waste, pollution and chemical dumps that can wreak havoc on reefs, marine plants, birds and fish. Inland dams reduce the natural flow of nutrients, interrupt the migration patterns of fish and curb freshwater courses, increasing the salinity of coastal waters. Deforestation far from the coast produces erosion, and the resulting sediment is carried out to sea and deposited in shallow waters, where it can block the sunlight that coral reefs need to grow. Oil tankers and container ships can damage habitats with their hulls and anchors. Spills of crude oil and other substances kill thousands of birds and fish, leaving a toxic trail that often takes years to disappear. The most devastating agent? Us.

John Akomfrah is a British writer, filmmaker, artist, philosopher and founder of the Black Audio Film Collective, a group comprising seven artists and film directors that developed a visual language addressing the links between the colonial past and the present of cultural production. Purple at Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza is John Akomfrah's first solo show in Spain.

Purple was commissioned by the Barbican, London and co-commissioned by Bildmuseet Umeå, Sweden, TBA21–Academy, TheInstitute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon.

John Akomfrah’s work found inspiration in various expeditions organised by TBA21–Academy. Founded by Francesca von Habsburg in 2011, and drawing on her experience as a producer of cross-disciplinary art installations and socially engaged cultural programming, the Academy leads artists, scientists, and thought-leaders on expeditions of collaborative discovery. TBA21–Academy is guided by its mission to foster a deeper understanding of the ocean through the lens of art and a belief in the power of exchange between disciplines to engender solutions for the ocean’s most pressing issues. Purple is curated by Chus Martinez in Madrid. Martinez will envision three expeditions of The Current, TBA21–Academy’s three-year fellowship program for artists, cultural agents and scientists.