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The week in art news – John Akomfrah to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

27 January 2023

The British Council has commissioned John Akomfrah for the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2024. The artist and film-maker, who was knighted in the 2023 UK honours list, came to prominence with Handsworth Songs (1986), a feature-length documentary on the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London, directed by Akomfrah and produced by the Black Audio Film Collective, of which Akomfrah was a founding member. In more recent years, Akomfrah has embarked on ambitious multi-channel video installations that continue to explore notions of Black identity in Britain as well as topics such as the climate crisis; they include his films about the cultural theorist Stuart Hall (The Unfinished Conversation) and Vertigo Sea (2015), in which the cruelty of the whaling industry was juxtaposed with migrant crossings. Akomfrah won the Artes Mundi prize in 2017, and participated at the Venice Biennale in 2019 as part of the inaugural pavilion of Ghana (where he was born). Akomfrah was Apollo’s Artist of the Year in 2018; read Fatema Ahmed’s interview with the artist here. And in other Venice-related announcements this week, Kapwani Kiwanga will represent Canada at Venice in 2024 and Julien Creuzet will represent France.

A group of archaeological artefacts worth $19m, returned to Italian officials by the United States in New York in July and September last year, were presented in a ceremony in Rome on Monday (23 January). They include a marble head of Athena, dating to around 200 BC and looted from an Italian temple, a fresco taken from Herculaneum and a drinking cup from around 470 BC. Just under half of the works had previously been held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The repatriation was the result of an ongoing trafficking investigation led by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the Carabinieri’s cultural patrimony unit.

The Jenners building in Edinburgh was damaged by fire on Monday. The A-listed former department store on Princes Street, designed by William Hamilton Beattie in 1895, has been vacant since May 2021; Anders Krogh, director of owners AAA United who have been working to convert the building into a hotel, said that early investigations show ‘very localised damage’, with ‘the overall building […] intact’. Five firefighters were injured attempting to quell the blaze, one critically. On Thursday, St Mark’s church in St John’s Wood, London, was severely damaged by fire; the London Fire Brigade reported no injuries but said that the Grade II-listed church, designed by Thomas Cundy Jr, completed in 1847 and containing mosaics by the Salviati family, had been ‘destroyed’.