Mimesis: African Soldier at the Imperial War Museum

A moving and innovative film installation commemorates the overlooked contributions of African soldiers in the First World War, writes Diya Nair.

Entering John Akomfrah’s new installation at the Imperial War Museum is immediately reminiscent of weekends spent at a cozy, intimate local movie theatre. However, rather than being treated to seventy-five minutes of Hollywood glamour, patrons are immersed in the stories, raw emotions and brutalities experienced by the millions of colonial soldiers who served alongside British troops between 1914 and 1918. 

Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the arts programme marking the centenary of the First World War, Mimesis: African Soldier remembers the global participants who took part in the war through a multi-screen installation. Akomfrah’s vision for the installation is grounded in shifting Eurocentric approaches to depictions of the period, instead offering ‘a necessary corrective, which is that people of colour (Africans and Asians) did fight in the war’. He has emphasized its urgency, noting that the rhetoric and policies of our time, often predicated on the ‘othering’ of immigrants, ironically involve the ‘exclusion of people who were involved in saving Britain’.

© John Akomfrah Still taken from Mimesis: African Soldier by John Akomfrah, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation

As is characteristic of Akomfrah’s work, the installation is structured in an innovative multi-screen approach, and it combines archival war footage with dramatic recreations to explore the emotional traumas of the war. 

Black and white archival footage portraying familiar scenes of carnage, chaos and celebration drastically contrasts with the rich colour palette of the reconstructions. While the archival footage showcases the more communal aspects of fighting and living through a period of war, the individual reconstructions focus more specifically on humanising the experience of a colonial solider and the emotional burden they carried.

© IWM (Q 4875) Troops of the South African Native Labour Corps around a brazier at their camp in Dannes, March 1917.

Akomfrah deftly intersperses long shots, full shots and close-ups in the reconstructions whilst simultaneously presenting contrasting imagery of idyllic scenery littered with corpses. Often the three screens show different perspectives of the same unfolding scene—for instance a soldier holding a constant salute while mustard gas creeps towards him and eventually engulfs him—which heightens the emotional charge of this immersive, multi-dimensional experience. 

© John Akomfrah Still taken from Mimesis: African Soldier by John Akomfrah, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation

Other sequences show photographs and artifacts floating in the sea, a reference to the SS Mendi disaster of 1917, in which over 600 black South Africans died. The visuals are accompanied by soundtracks drawn from the African diaspora of the 1920s and 1930s, evoking the spirit and lost voices of the African soldiers.

Photo © IWM / Film © Smoking Dogs Films. John Akomfrah in front of Mimesis: African Soldier, co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, New Art Exchange, Nottingham and Smoking Dogs Films, with additional support from Sharjah Art Foundation

Enclosed in an environment free from the esoteric jargon normally needed to decipher an installation, patrons remain glued to their seats. The fact we are unable to tear our eyes from the captivating display of raw emotion and palpable grief on the screens is testament to the power of Akomfrah’s work to provide expression to colonial soldiers whose experiences have been long suppressed. 

Mimesis: African Solider is part of the Making A New World season of exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum, and runs until 31 March 2019. More information about the installation can be found here.


Diya Nair is a third year Law student at King’s College London who has grown up in Hong Kong, India and Singapore. In her free time, she can be found eating hummus and crackers, reading or obsessively re-watching The Mindy Project!

Help us produce quality journalism

London Student is not supported by any university or students' union. All our activity is funded by donations.