When it comes to the Union Jack, I’ve never really felt like it belongs to me,” British-Ghanaian artist Larry Achiampong tells me. “I wanted to create essentially a beacon, whereby people who don’t feel connected with some of the symbols, flags, or certain iconic logos feel represented.”
This morning, Achiampong unveiled his striking new artwork at Westminster underground station. For this permanent commission, the artist has reimagined the London Underground roundel logo in African colours, creating a politically charged piece that speaks directly to Londoners.
“When I was first approached by Transport for London’s Art on the Underground team, I did a lot of research into the history of London Underground’s iconic roundel,” says Achiampong. “Even as somebody who’s used the underground network so much, having grown up in East London mostly, it never really occurred to me until I started researching that the colours are very particular in relation to the the Union Jack with its use of red, white, blue.”
Building on a flag that Achiampong had designed previously, the artist replaces these traditional colours with others that hold alternative meaning. The yellow-gold represents prosperity, the black relates to the African continent’s people, the green symbolises plant life and resources and the red represents the struggle the continent has endured. There are 54 stars to represent each of the 54 countries of the African continent joined in union.
“When I was making it, I was imagining a younger version of myself who grew up in London,” Achiampong explains. “I never really felt like I had something that said, this also belongs to you, this also is part of you. This is your land as well as other people’s.”
Achiampong’s remixed roundel connects back to a series of temporary artworks he created for the same station in 2019 and both projects are part of a wider series known as his ‘Relic Traveller’ works. It’s a speculative project that looks at ideas of displacement, fallen empire and lost testimony and a vehicle through which Achiampong thinks about nationalism. In a series of films, the artist sends a ‘Relic Traveller’ back through time to talk to people whose voices have gone unheard, imagining a world in which the African nations have flourished in union while the West has become a relic of its former self.
With the Westminster piece – entitled Pan African Flag for the Relic Travellers’ Alliance (Union) – Achiampong makes visible the significant contributions the Black community have made to Transport for London, to the city itself and by extension to the United Kingdom – and located it right next door to the seat of government.
“In some respects the work is a celebration, but at the same time in other respects an acknowledgement shall we say, that I don’t think is always visible when we travel through the city of London,” the artist says. It feels significant that such an important artwork is being unveiled not just at this location but at this precarious political moment, as we begin to experience the impact of Brexit and make decisions about refugees fleeing war in Ukraine. The artwork highlights the important contributions of those that have not been recognised and questions the sense in closing our borders and shutting ourselves off to different ideas and contributions.
Today Achiampong makes his work from a live/work studio in Purfleet-on-Thames but he spent his childhood in Bethnal Green and Dagenham in East London. The son of parents who immigrated to the UK from Ghana in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was involved in music, gaming and skateboarding subcultures but his early life was also heavily influenced by his Ghanaian heritage.
Whatever form his work takes, whether moving image or sculpture, it is often inspired by his own experiences. A child of the 80’s and 90’s, Achiampong was familiar with the Robertson’s golliwog motif that adorned jam jars at breakfast tables around the country, including his own. “I never understood what this symbolism really meant other than feeling quite hurt and traumatised by it because it felt like a stereotype,” he tells me.
The experience inspired one of his most memorable artwork series and one that first caught the attention of the art world, his ‘Glyth’ series, which he often refers to as ‘cloudface’. Working from his family’s photographic archive, he obscures the faces of relatives with large round black dots adorned with red lips – referencing the golliwog portraits as well as the tendency of the white gaze to stereotype, homogenise and even ridicule black faces.
Achiampong didn’t visit art galleries as a child. The art he experienced was through popular culture – video games, television, film and comics. Those influences spill into his practice today. He has a talent for embracing the symbolism of mainstream culture and translating it so that a wider audience can connect with his work. In reference to the roundel he draws my attention to the stars. “You have the power-up star in Super Mario Brothers, for example,” he explains. “It’s about taking that iconography and giving people that hint of an Easter egg of sorts.”
At Achiampong’s first major solo exhibition, now open at Turner Contemporary in Margate, the artist has incorporated a gaming room as a companion space to the show. The gallery showcases the video games that have influenced his work like Ico, Journey and Legend of Zelda. “I wanted to create something that could be just as engaging as standing in a room full of Turner’s works, or my own works, but then a room that speaks critically at the same time. There are a lot of games that are based around the idea of a journey and a community in a co-operative sense as well.”
The exhibition also includes Achiampong’s most ambitious work to date, a feature-length film called Wayfinder. Set in a pandemic, it follows a young Black woman’s journey across England, exploring themes of class and economic exclusion as well as cultural heritage and the meaning of home.
“When we were initially building the idea for the film, I was trying to bring in voices that don’t tend to be considered,” he tells me. “When it comes to this idea of looking at the landscape, that aspect of the sublime tends to be experienced from the point of view of white men and so to centre that within the voices of Black women was very important.”
Achiampong developed the film script with writer Aida Amoako, who also has roots in Ghana and a nuanced understanding of the Black female experience. The film considers the Black presence within the UK and thinks about contributions which have been omitted from the way history is presented.
With visual clarity the artist’s remix of London Underground’s iconic design makes a powerful contribution to the ongoing conversation too, prioritising forgotten voices and challenging the status quo in a prominent public space heavy with political symbolism. Achiampong’s aim is that it holds the potential to provoke change.
“It’s interesting that people like to say ‘a lot has changed,’ but I like to say ‘a lot has not’, says the artist. “I feel like the conversation is far from over.”
Pan African Flag for the Relic Travellers’ Alliance (Union) is now on permanent display at Westminster Underground Station, tfl.art.gov.uk