Sir John Akomfrah RA at the 60th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia 
Tuesday 16 April 2024

Sir John Akomfrah explores post-colonialism, environmental devastation and the politics of aesthetics for the British Pavilion’s contribution to the 60th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.

I’m like a little boat,

Sensing an expanse,

Of endless water

Here under groves of trees,

Face to face in the bedroom,

Listening all night to the rain. 

Poem 83, Su Dongpo (1037-1101) 

Akomfrah’s boldest and most ambitious commission to date, Listening All Night To the Rain, draws its title from 11th century Chinese writer and artist Su Dongpo’s poetry, which explores the transitory nature of life during a period of political exile. Organised into a series of song-like movements or ‘cantos’, the exhibition, curated by Tarini Malik, brings together eight interlocking and overlapping multimedia and sound installations into a single and immersive environment that tell stories of migrant diasporas in Britain. The exhibition is the result of decades of extensive research by the artist and his team, using historical records to contextualise our experience of the present day.  
The exhibition begins on the exterior of the British Pavilion’s 19th century neoclassical building, with a large three-screen film installation suspended onto its façade. This artistic intervention brings imagery and voices from the Global South to the forefront, honouring those who have been marginalised by the legacies of imperialism.  
Inside the Pavilion, film screens embedded within sculptural installations are inspired by the structure and form of altarpieces from religious sites, evoking a sense of contemplation and reverie. Each gallery space layers together a specific colour field, influenced by the paintings of American artist Mark Rothko, in order to highlight the ways in which abstraction can represent the fundamental nature of human drama.  
Listening All Night To The Rain weaves together newly filmed material, archive video footage and still images, with audio and text from international archives and libraries. The exhibition tells global stories through the ‘memories’ of people who represent migrant communities in Britain and examines how multiple geopolitical narratives are reflected in the experiences of diasporic people more broadly.  
Testament to the artist’s long-standing motivations in addressing landmark moments in British history through a critical lens, the exhibition platforms narratives, including those belonging to the Windrush generation, and pays respect to the breadth of black British identity. Shedding light on the discrimination that migrants in Britain faced during the post- industrial decline of the country from the late 1960s onwards, a central figure in the work is the life and death of British-Nigerian David Oluwale, who tragically drowned in the River Aire, Yorkshire after being brutalised by local policemen. Yorkshire, along with the Scottish Highlands, are pivotal locations throughout the work and act as mythical homes for the various characters whose memories we witness.  
Bodies of water are a central motif throughout Listening All Night To The Rain and form the connective tissue between the visual and sonic narratives. Referencing the work of French immunologist Jacques Benveniste, Akomfrah considers water a reservoir for memory: a site where narratives from the past, present and future are held. In theatrically staged tableaux and archival footage, water moves in waves to represent fluctuations in time and the movement of people from one place to another, mirroring the experience of migrants across vast expanses of water. Water is also used to evoke the experience of diasporic communities directly impacted by climate catastrophes and rising sea levels. Images from Bangladesh’s devastating flooding from the 1980s onwards permeate the work, depicting how the country is on the frontline of a climate emergency generated by pollution and the extraction of natural resources; a legacy of colonial powers. Illustrating the connection between military conflicts and ecological devastation, Listening All Night To The Rain reveals the inalterable impact on the natural environment.  
To further highlight the enduring legacies of colonialism, the exhibition captures pivotal moments in the history of independence movements and rebellions that swept across Africa and Asia from the 1940s-70s. Archival imagery delves into the Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya (1952-1960) and the brutalities of the British counter-insurgency campaign. In the Congo, Akomfrah portrays the struggle for independence from Belgian colonialism and in Nigeria, archival material reveals the 1960s Civil War and the tragic consequences of colonial land amalgamation. Meanwhile, Akomfrah captures the devastation of the Indian Partition in 1947, shedding light on emblematic figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, and the implementation of his five-year plan to recover India from the deprivation caused by the British occupation.
Listening All Night To The Rain positions various theories of acoustemology: the study of how the sonic experience mirrors and shapes our cultural realities. Akomfrah draws on an acute acoustic sensitivity influenced by a variety of formative experiences, from protests to club culture in 1970s-80s London. Each of Akomfrah’s ‘cantos’ is accompanied by a specific soundtrack, which layers archival material with field recordings, speeches and popular and devotional music. Extending the sense of hybridity in the filmic collages, Akomfrah’s use of sound encourages us to consider the breadth of cultural identity in Britain more broadly.

John Akomfrah said:

“The exhibition is about trying to create a space where people can experience, understand and engage with questions of acoustemology: a sonic way of knowing and being in the world. This is at the core of the Pavilion – be it the ethics, the aesthetics, the problematics, the memories or the histories of listening. When you're listening, you're tuned into your own dreams and ambitions, and to the stories that people tell, unearthing narratives. The key visual motif of the Pavilion – flooding – revisits concerns about climate change but uses the occasion of the approaching crises to encourage a re-thinking of our past. It's a moment to take a detour through avenues of memory, suggesting paths perhaps not taken because we weren’t listening.”  


Tarini Malik, Shane Akeroyd Associate Curator of the British Pavilion, said:

“Bringing together vast and intertwined geopolitical and historical narratives, Listening All Night To The Rain is a boldly imaginative testament to the role of art in charting new ways of confronting legacies of racism and celebrating cultures of resistance and affirmation. True to Akomfrah’s legacy as a trailblazing British artist and filmmaker, this commission pushes the boundaries of his chosen medium, alluding to the power of memory in determining our future and preservation of the natural world.”  


Skinder Hundal, Global Director of Arts at the British Council and Commissioner of the British Pavilion, said:

“This year’s exhibition at the British Pavilion pushes the boundaries of anything artist John Akomfrah has ever presented before. Everyone involved in bringing Listening All Night To The Rain to life should feel extremely proud today of what they have achieved. I am convinced that this work will inspire a new generation of creative talent to collaborate with a deeper consciousness of our planet and the lives that inhabit it. On a personal note, I am overjoyed that three people of colour born from immigrant communities, John Akomfrah, Tarini Malik and myself, have broken through into one of the most important global art events on the calendar.”

For the first time, the British Council will work with partners on an expanded public programme of in-person and online events including talks, film screenings, workshops, performances and commissioned responses. The programme recognises Akomfrah’s impact and influence on different generations of artists and filmmakers by platforming new voices that connect audiences beyond Venice, encouraging a global dialogue around the most pressing issues of our time. The commission will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, published by Hatje Cantz and widely available in shops and online from September 2024. The publication is edited by Tarini Malik with Ben Eastham and includes additional support from Novuyo Moyo. The partners for Listening All Night To The Rain include returning Headline partner Burberry, Official partner LG OLED, Digital partner Bloomberg Philanthropies, Supporting partners Frieze and Christie's and Unifor and Kvadrat.

The exhibition is also made possible through the support of Lisson Gallery, the Ford Foundation, Luma Foundation, Henry Moore Foundation, Rothschild Foundation and Aarti Lohia, Chairperson of the SP Lohia Foundation: the British Council's Ambassador for the International Exhibitions of La Biennale di Venezia.

Art Fund is generously supporting a tour to bring Listening All Night To The Rain to venues and audiences across the UK. Amgueddfa Cymru's National Museum Cardiff (Cardiff) and Dundee Contemporary Arts (Dundee) are among the UK museums and galleries to host the exhibition in 2025 and 2026 with support from Art Fund. Further tour locations and dates are to be announced in the coming weeks.

Bloomberg are digital partners for the British Pavilion in 2024.

The British Council Patrons Board, chaired by Ebele Okobi, has seen a record number of individual patrons supporting this year’s commission.


The British Council has been responsible for the British Pavilion at the International Exhibitions of La Biennale di Venezia since 1937, showcasing the best of the UK’s artists, architects, designers and curators.These International Exhibitions, and the British Council’s Venice Fellowships initiative introduced in 2016, help make the British Pavilion a major platform for discussion about contemporary art and architecture.

The British Council’s Fellowship Scheme hosts 66 emerging arts professionals and students in Venice for a month throughout the run of the International Exhibitions of La Biennale di Venezia. During their time in Venice they invigilate the Pavilion alongside conducting independent research and fostering new international connections. For 2024, the British Council has partnered with 42 UK Higher Education Institutions and arts organisations with whom they are committed to creating inclusive and representative pathways for all into the Visual Arts Sector.

Notes to Editor

Exhibition details:

For further information, interview requests and images please contact: Sam Talbot +447725 184630

Mary Doherty +447716 701499

John Akomfrah’s British Council Commission for the British Pavilion at the 60th International Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia will run from 20 April – 24 November 2024.

For more information visit

Preview: Wednesday 17 April to Friday 19 April, 10am-6pm

The British Pavilion is commissioned by the British Council; please ensure you credit the British Council in all editorial features.

For news on the British Council commission:

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UK in Venice

Visit for further information about other UK events and UK- based artists exhibiting in Venice during the Biennale Arte 2024.

About John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah is a hugely respected artist and filmmaker, whose works are characterised by their investigations into memory, post-colonialism, temporality and aesthetics and often explore the experiences of migrant diasporas globally. Akomfrah was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, who he still collaborates with today alongside Ashitey Akomfrah as Smoking Dogs Films. Their first film, Handsworth Songs (1986) explored events surrounding the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a charged combination of archive footage, still photos, newly shot material and newsreel. The film won several international prizes and established a multi-layered visual style that has become a recognisable motif of Akomfrah’s practice. Other works include the three-screen installation The Unfinished Conversation (2012), a moving portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s life and work; Peripeteia (2012), an imagined drama visualising the lives of individuals included in two 16th century portraits by Albrecht Dürer and Mnemosyne (2010) which exposes experiences of migrants in the UK, questioning the notion of Britain as a promised land by revealing the realities of economic hardship and casual racism.

In 2015, Akomfrah premiered his three-screen film installation Vertigo Sea (2015), which explores what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls ‘the sublime seas’. Fusing archival material, readings from classical sources and newly shot footage, Akomfrah’s piece focuses on the disorder and cruelty of the whaling industry and juxtaposes it with scenes of many generations of migrants making epic crossings of the ocean for a better life. In 2017, Akomfrah presented his largest film installation to date, Purple (2017), at the Barbican in London, which addresses climate change, human communities and wilderness. More recently, Akomfrah debuted Precarity (2017) at Prospect 4 New Orleans, following the life of forgotten New Orleans jazz trumpeter Charles 'Buddy' Bolden. In 2018, Akomfrah participated in the UK wide World War One arts programme 14-18 Now, with his multiscreen installation Mimesis: African Soldier (2018), which commemorated African and colonial participants who fought, served and perished during The Great War. In 2019 Akomfrah presented Four Nocturnes (2019) in the Ghana Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, a three-channel piece reflecting on the intertwined relationship between humanity’s destruction of the natural world and our of ourselves. In 2023, he premiered two major five-channel pieces at the 15th Sharjah Biennial: ‘Thinking Historically in the Present’: Arcadia (2023), reflecting on ‘The Columbian Exchange’ between the Americas, Afro-Eurasia and Europe from the 1400s onwards; and Becoming Wind (2023), an allegorical representation of the Garden of Eden and its disappearance.