“I was ready to shake up the world,” says Ayo Akingbade, remembering the day she graduated from film school. But she soon encountered obstacles. “People think you don’t have a voice,” she says, “because you don’t have the money, the name, or whatever.”
Akingbade is sitting in her London studio surrounded by pictures of her idols: Sade, Naomi Campbell and Tina Turner – women famed for doing things their own way. And, despite the obstacles, or perhaps because of them, Akingbade has forged her own path as well. The 26-year-old artist and film-maker has written, produced and directed 12 short films that have won international awards, and travelled to prestigious festivals worldwide. She recently scooped the £10,000 Brewers award – and her solo exhibition A Glittering City has just opened at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.
Her studio, at the Royal Academy Schools in Mayfair, is a long way from the Hackney estate where she spent her early childhood. London’s housing schemes and their communities recur in her films, which examine how their residents find solace and a sense of belonging. A Glittering City includes the new film Fire in My Belly, an uplifting tale of four young creatives who speak frankly, and with youthful intensity, about their experiences growing and their hopes for the future.
Akingbade is often mislabelled as a documentary-maker, but her films come together more by intuition. Incorporating new and archive footage, non-linear narratives echo the lo-fi, low-budget style of French new wave directors, often shot on 16mm with friends rather than professional actors. What Akingbade is interested in is what film can make you feel, how it can suspend you in a moment, rather than how it can convince you of a point of view.
After a brief stint in fashion, Akingbade went on to study film at the London College of Communication. She was ready to start her career but found familiar barriers. As a young black woman in a white-dominated industry, she was frequently misunderstood. “I’m from Hackney,” she says. “I didn’t grow up in this environment where I’m the only black person. I didn’t even know I was poor. It was a realisation I had much later.” At one production company, she was told she was rude. Another suggested she was antisocial. “I didn’t come from their world, so I didn’t have their mannerisms.” At another workplace, a colleague warned her: “You’re a woman – you have to be friendly to everyone.”
But these experiences didn’t discourage Akingbade: “I was bored of trying to appease.” She made her first film, In Ur Eye, in 2015 with no real budget, and entered it in David Lammy’s Fourwalls short film project, a competition for film-makers in London to tackle the city’s housing crisis. In Ur Eye was Akingbade’s way of responding to the rapid gentrification in Dalston, east London, that began in 2009, with the redevelopment of Shacklewell Lane as a hub for fashion design studios. At the same time, Hackney’s housing schemes, including the Kingsmead estate where Akingbade spent her early childhood, became popular settings for music videos and fashion campaigns. Glamorised or vilified, it wasn’t a version of Hackney Akingbade recognised. “It didn’t feel like my home any more.”
In Ur Eye was shortlisted for Fourwalls and premiered at the London short film festival. Akingbade then made the first in what would become a trilogy called No News Today. The three films explore narratives around social housing in London today, focusing on the ways residents have fought for their rights in the face of redevelopment and gentrification. These are much more than tales of hardship, however. “I don’t want that to be the narrative,” she says. “That’s what people love to hear. But those aren’t the films I want to make.”
The first, Tower XYZ, which is currently showing at the Lisson Gallery, is a three-minute immersion into London tower block life seen through Akingbade’s eyes and set against a throbbing soundtrack. At its centre is Trellick Tower, a Grade II*-listed building designed by Ernő Goldfinger. The camera follows three girlfriends, hanging out on the estate, sometimes overshadowed by the imposing architecture, at other times taking over the space, owning it. As the camera follows them, a female voice narrates: “This city stinks, full of dead culture, repetition … nah, it’s fetishisation of our culture, my culture.” It ends with a dreamlike sequence of a man walking towards the camera, smiling, holding up a sign. “All is well,” it says. “Some have said it’s a call to action,” Akingbade says of Tower XYZ. “I would say it’s just about existing.”
The second film, Street 66, examines the history of the Angell Town estate, built in Brixton in the 1970s, using archival and new footage, narrated by different residents. It pays homage to activist and Angell resident “Difficult” Dora Boatemah, who campaigned for the rights of council tenants to participate in decisions about the regeneration of their homes. “Dora is a winner in my eyes,” Akingbade adds. “But I remember pitching to a documentary commissioner and he said: ‘Her story is not global enough.’ It wouldn’t appeal to their worldwide reach. Bonkers.”
Dear Babylon, the last film in the trilogy, is part of the Whitechapel show. It’s a multilayered portrait of the landmark Dorset estate in Bethnal Green, designed by Berthold Lubetkin. The film dovetails the architect’s socialist ideals with the experience of its residents, and the reflections of three fictional art students who decide to make a film to protest about a fictitious housing bill that threatens to push many tenants out. Dear Babylon ends with one student, Ada, beaming into the camera as she finishes editing her protest film.
For all its subject matter, the 21-minute work is ultimately uplifting. But then doing the unexpected is Akingbade’s speciality. “I tend to do the opposite of what people like,” she says. “Not fitting in might be a good thing.”