Installation view of John Akomfrah: Purple at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Courtesy photo/Ron Blunt © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery)
Installation view of John Akomfrah: Purple at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Courtesy photo/Ron Blunt © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery)

Overview:

New exhibit offers an immersive experience of global warming's impact.

The inside of the Hirshhorn Museum’s newest exhibit feels a little bit like a cave — massive and dark. The walls, floor, and beanbag seating share a matching shade of deep purple, a color chosen by artist John Akomfrah because it represents mourning in Ghana, his birthplace. 

Within that atmosphere, it’s easy to get lost in the six huge screens that stretch across the museum’s curved wall. On the screens plays Akomfrah’s “Purple,” a 62-minute film made up of constantly shifting collages that explore climate change’s impact on communities, landscapes and biodiversity. 

“Sometimes when you see a video in a museum, you think ‘oh, I don’t have time for this’ and you just sort of walk past it,” said Marina Isgro, the exhibit’s curator. “But I’ve heard that people are sitting down and really watching it for long periods of time—people find it absorbing.”

The exhibit opened on Nov. 23, the day before Thanksgiving. Over the four-day holiday weekend that followed, the Hirshhorn had more than 19,000 visitors, according to the museum’s communication’s director, Kate Gibbs. 

The work weaves together archival footage from the BBC with new video Akomfrah shot in locations around the world where global warming is rapidly changing landscapes and ways of life. The accompanying soundtrack shifts from melancholy to ominous and back again with a mix of original music, old recordings, and spoken word. 

Akomfrah has said his inspiration for “Purple” came, in part, from a childhood spent in the shadow of a coal-fired power station in London. Pollution hung in the air constantly. 

The Hirshhorn’s exhibit captures some of that sense of a polluted atmosphere: a “toxic cloud” made of hundreds of plastic bottles hangs overhead at the exhibit’s entrance.

“I want people to be aware of the ways in which their lives are touched by things unseen and bear witness to these creeping environmental disasters and emergencies,” Akomfrah said in a press release about the new installation, which opened at the Hirshhorn Nov. 23. 

The non-narrative film—which includes snippets from the Industrial Age all the way to the modern day—presents a new way to confront the realities of climate change. It offers neither scientific analysis nor policy suggestions. 

“One thing I really like about this work is that it’s not preachy, it’s not didactic,” Isgro said. “Sometimes when you talk about climate change, there’s a lot of admonishing people—like for using plastic forks, or straws. And Akomfrah says basically ‘that’s not what I want to do as an artist.’”

“John Akomfrah: Purple” will be on display through January 2024 at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Independence Avenue SW & 7th Street SW).

Kayla Benjamin

Covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine writing stories...

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