Terminal: John Akomfrah, Naeem Mohaiemen

John Akomfrah, The Airport, 2016, video installation, 53min

UK artist John Akomfrah’s recent films give sprawling, elliptical form to the diasporic experience. They centre on contemporary issues rooted in histories and ideologies of empire, such as environmental destruction, religious persecution, economic collapse, and the refugee crisis. Untethering art’s historical relationship to power, Akomfrah mixes cultural forms, narratives, and perspectives. His films often operate like epic history paintings entered from the wrong (or right) side. Often grounded in folk songs and local stories, they make new possibilities out of outdated art tropes, testing the ‘truths’ of history and the archive that we trust to retell it.

The Airport is set in a derelict, abandoned terminal. Across three screens, figures walk through its interior and exterior spaces, and the surrounding landscape. These travellers from other times pass but never connect. Forever in transit or limbo, they are delayed in what was once the ultimate symbol of freedom and escape. Akomfrah’s use of long, slow takes across multiple screens transfers this sense of immersion and suspended temporality to the viewing experience. In one sense, his figures are abstractions of all humanity, now trapped within the vestiges of twentieth-century modernity with its blind faith in progress. Steeped in the form and languages of a premodern romantic tradition, Akomfrah treats the airport as modern ruin.

While evoking all airports, the film is specifically set in Athens’s abandoned Ellinikon International Airport and addresses the predicament of contemporary Greece. Akomfrah describes it as ‘a conversation with that space, and the desire to see how the airport can be both a fiction as well as a literal place’.[1] It is a project of sensory ethnography that attempts to make sense of the economic and migrant crises that have brought Greece to its knees.[2] Akomfrah has dealt with Greece before. His The Nine Muses (2002) rethought Homer’s Odyssey as a meditation on the mass migration from the Caribbean to post-war Britain, told through intertwined found and made journeying narratives. While The Airport starts and concludes with a lingering glance across Athens to the Parthenon, Akomfrah is dealing with a very different mythology—the rise and fall of Greece as a modern nation, and its role in contemporary geopolitics.

Where previous films, like The Nine Muses, were montages of found and made material, The Airport consists entirely of new footage shot by Akomfrah. Yet, a sense of montage lingers in the ways that he layers historical traces and fragments from the history of this site. The terminal walkers are dressed in period costume from different moments in modern Greek history. Classical music is mixed with Greek folk songs. Sampled radio broadcasts recall the histories of war and occupation that have played out in this region, which have seen this airport occupied by Nazi and US forces. The film links these historical events with the current refugee crisis, all of which utilised Greece as a gateway into Europe.

Ellinikon’s modern terminal, in which most of the film is set, was bankrolled by Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis and designed by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen in 1969. It was built as part of Greece’s postwar economic boom and symbolised modern cosmopolitanism—openness to the world. In 2004, Ellinikon was closed and replaced by an even larger airport, as Greece prepared to host the Olympics. This investment is sometimes identified as the start of the country’s economic decline, which became one of the world’s most severe under the Global Financial Crisis. Subsequent economic reforms and austerity measures dismantled the Greek welfare state and created a humanitarian crisis. This was compounded by the tens of thousands of refugees who flooded and were trapped in Greece at this time. The film demonstrates Akomfrah’s belief that these personal and collective histories ‘are absorbed by places’.[3]

Akomfrah makes a new symbolic form out of a building that once symbolised a more prosperous future for Greece, and has subsequently come to signify the failure of that dream. His airport links the national and personal histories of Greek people stuck inside a structure, system, and promise from which there is little hope of flight. At the edge of this airport sits the ocean and the boats that feature in so many of Akomfrah’s other films as symbols of the diasporic experience. His airport connects the disparate migratory stories of the past and present, the real and the mythological, and the Greek and non-Greek. It is an architectural and symbolic structure that has absorbed and transmits all of these migratory stories.

There are other travellers here: a gorilla and an astronaut. They have migrated from Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), made a year before the terminal was built. The astronaut seems to be less trapped inside the airport than transported to it from another time and space. Observer rather than participant, he is a stand-in for the artist working with this material and for the viewer who Akomfrah leaves adrift amongst multiple fragments, narrative possibilities, and slipping time scales. Akomfrah notes:

He is us. We are rummaging through a series of discrete events from the past, albeit fiction, but alluding to things we’re not in complete control of, which we don’t understand, that we’re always outside of looking in.[4]

Akomfrah references Kubrick and Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, whose films allowed him to see and respond to this space and the crisis it embodies. He makes visible ‘the unseen guests that are there, whether it’s filmmakers, artists, or narratives’ that emerge ‘every time I bring a camera out’.[5] He soon became one of these guests himself, when Naeem Mohaiemen made his film Tripoli Cancelled in Ellinikon a year later. Mohaiemen treats Akomfrah’s The Airport as one of those narratives and presences that have now been absorbed by this abandoned, yet still potent, airport.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Tripoli Cancelled  2017, film, 95min

Tripoli Cancelled is artist and writer Naeem Mohaiemen’s first fiction film, but not his first set in or around the airport. His ongoing analysis of historical ruptures, leftist movements, and failed utopias has often circled the airport as a complex site embodying the key global political shifts and tensions of the recent past and present.

Mohaiemen’s 2011 film United Red Army uses archival footage and sound recordings of tarmac negotiations to reconstruct the 1977 hijacking of Japanese Airlines Flight 742. The hijackers—associated with the Japanese Red Army, a revolutionary communist group—were demonstrating solidarity with the Palestinian cause. After misidentifying Bangladesh as an Islamic Republic (an identity being heavily contested within the country at that moment), they diverted the plane to Dhaka. Mohaiemen intertwines this event with the internecine conflictual politics of 1970s Bangladesh and the wider Southeast-Asian region, along with his own family history. In the film, a young Mohaiemen is heard wishing the live television coverage of the negotiations would end, so that normal programming can resume. His father was a colleague of hostage negotiator, Air Force Chief A.G. Mahmud, who provided the recordings of the negotiations used in the film.

Mohaiemen describes Tripoli Cancelled as ‘a fable of a man who lives in the airport’.[6] It follows his movements for a week, in the limbo state he has occupied for a decade. He wanders the airport, occupying himself by exploring rooms and equipment, playing pilot and control-tower operator, dancing, and striking up imaginary conversations. This is a very different film to United Red Army, but is constructed through a similar web of personal, cultural, and political allusions. If there is a negotiation in Tripoli Cancelled, it is between the artist and the viewer. The experience of this abstracted, discursive film parallels the protagonist’s exploration of the airport as a physical, temporal, and symbolic structure. We constantly seek direction and meaning in a form that normally carefully controls our movement.

Narration comes via the letters the man writes daily to his wife and the passages he reads from his son’s favourite book, Watership Down (1972). This device surfaces various historical events—especially through references to the writings of Hannah Arendt and Giorgio Agamben and the use of Boney M’s migration disco hit The Rivers of Babylon (1978). Yet, it’s the man’s innate solitariness that propels the narrative and opens onto larger issues. We witness his awkward attempts to recover social situations by playing house with airport mannequins, attempting to call home, or rifling through piles of other people’s boarding passes, whose names and destinations he recounts as mantras or as if old friends.

The film’s long takes and slow pace also convey this state of limbo and exile. Time
is stretched to become as portentous as the architectural setting. Mohaiemen has identified a similar sense of ‘suspended time’ in Palestinian artist Emily Jacir’s Embrace (2005).[7] Jacir’s sculptural remake of a luggage carousel, scaled to the artist’s body, is set in an endless rotation that symbolises the condition of exile—of being in and out of time and place, never arriving or departing. At one point in Tripoli Cancelled, the man curls up and sleeps on a disabled carousel.

The film was written, shot, and improvised with Greek-Iranian actor Vassilis Koukalani
in Athens’ Ellinikon airport, which is already freighted with a complex history. The terminal was built in the late 1960s as a symbol of Greece’s bright future and jet-age glamour. Closed in 2004, then abandoned as conjoined financial, humanitarian, and migration crises decimated the Greek economy, it has come to symbolise the failure of the nationalistic and neoliberal dream it once represented. Mohaiemen presents this once-futuristic airport—then fuelled with national pride and promise—in ruins, as symbol and as witness.

Initial plans to turn Ellinikon into a metropolitan park following the model of Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport were shelved as part of widespread austerity measures. One long take in Tripoli Cancelled shows the man slowly walking the white line of the runway towards the camera, reversing the trajectory of Lauren Brincat’s walking performance on the Tempelhof runway in This Time Tomorrow, Tempelhof (2011). Both artists use this runway walk to explore the possibility of individual agency within the larger structures and systems the airport symbolises. As a different form of tarmac negotiation, this scene also recalls United Red Army.

Tripoli Cancelled accidently anticipates the future uses of this airport. After the
film was shot, but before it premiered at Documenta 14 in Athens in 2017, Ellinikon became a temporary refugee shelter. Thousands of migrants lived there, many sleeping in tents inside the departure lounge. The documentary Greece: The Airport of Disillusion (2017) presents Ellinikon as a metaphor for the country and a world in the midst of a migration crisis it cannot handle. Mohaiemen’s film sits adjacent to these issues, but has a more speculative reach.

‘I wanted to make a film about loneliness’, Mohaiemen says, explaining the gap between his original intent and the actual reception, ‘but by the time the film came out, the refugee crisis was full-blown. You can’t show a film about someone stuck in an airport and not have everybody read it as a metaphor for the refugee crisis.’[8] It has perhaps also influenced how others see the situation. Greece: The Airport of Disillusion follows the daily movements and rituals of two men caught in limbo at Ellinikon: a young Afghan refugee Ratib and a Greek pensioner Yorgos. Both films linger on a broken announcements board, forever frozen on Flight 737 boarding for Paris.

For Mohaiemen, the story sits closer to home. It is inspired by the experience of his father, who in 1977 lost his passport while transiting through Greece to the family’s then home of Tripoli, Libya. He was stuck in the Ellinikon terminal for nine days, as Greek authorities verified his nationality and allowed him to return to Bangladesh. Mohaiemen describes the event as an urban legend in the family, as well as ‘the reason everyone in my family arrives at the airport four hours early’.[9]

The film constantly blurs these real, fictional, and metaphorical transit scenarios. Koukalani looks like Mohaiemen’s father, the number he dials is that of their old house
in Dhaka, and Watership Down symbolises the British literature that circulated within Mohaiemen’s early childhood in Bangladesh and Libya. The questions around citizenship, nationality, and borders embedded in all Mohaiemen’s work were strangely underscored with his 2018 nomination for the Turner Prize. The definition and relevance of this ‘British Art Prize’ was thrown into question that year, since, like Mohaiemen, the other nominees (including New Zealand artist Luke Willis Thompson and multi-nation collective Forensic Architecture) came from or spent a great deal of their lives elsewhere.

As part of an outreach programme for Documenta 14, Mohaiemen worked with Greek photography schools on a project that sent twenty-three photographers
to Ellinikon. For the younger participants especially, the project offered physical and imaginative access to ‘an airport that never was’.[10] Collectively titled What We Found after You Left, the photographs are presented alongside the film as parallel narratives or possibilities. They conspire with Tripoli Cancelled, and by association John Akomfrah’s The Airport (acknowledged by Mohaiemen as an inspiration for his film) to present Ellinikon as ‘a site of many stories, waiting’.[11]

Published in Terminal (City Gallery Wellington, 2020), 66-77.

[1] Tess Thackara, ‘John Akomfrah Summons the History of Migration in Chillingly Beautiful New Films’, Artsy, 23 June 2016.

[2] Ashley Clark ‘“We Will Be Fine. We Will Absolutely Be Fine”: A Conversation with Artist and Filmmaker John Akomfrah’, Filmmaker Magazine, 18 July 2016.

[3] Tess Thackara, ‘John Akomfrah Summons the History of Migration in Chillingly Beautiful New Films’.

[4] Ashley Clark, ‘“We Will Be Fine. We Will Absolutely Be Fine”: A Conversation with Artist and Filmmaker John Akomfrah’.

[5]  Ibid.

[6] Artist talk by Naeem Mohaiemen, Chobi Mela, 20 April 2019,

[7] ‘Never Liked Goodbyes Anyway: Naeem Mohaiemen and Didem Pekün in Conversation’, E-Flux, 4 May, 2017.

[8] Killian Fox, ‘Naeem Mohaiemen: ‘I Wanted to Take the Documentary Form and Jar It’, Guardian, 22 September 2018,

[9] Artist talk by Naeem Mohaiemen.

[10]Tripoli Cancelled: Exhibition of Greek Photography’, EMST National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, 2017,

[11] Ibid.