John Akomfrah is a London-based artist and filmmaker known for his distinctive visual and sonic style. “Precarity” examines the remarkable life and times of Charles “Buddy” Bolden (1877 – 1931), the first person known to have explored the musical tonalities we now call jazz. Beginning in 1900, Buddy Bolden was the most popular musician in New Orleans, playing everywhere from Uptown to Storyville. Celebrated for his raucously loud cornet, innovative improvisation, and down-and-dirty style, “King Bolden” reigned until 1907, when he was permanently committed to the State Insane Asylum in Jackson, Louisiana, with schizophrenia. An almost mythical figure, he left behind no known recordings and only a couple of grainy images.

“Precarity” is consequently as much a ghost story as it is a portrait of a historical figure. It is also a lyrical exploration of the city that gave rise to jazz, a development that owed itself, in large part, to New Orleans’s position as a cultural crossroads. Akomfrah likewise situated “Precarity” at a crossroads, or intersection, of genres: the film essay, the historical documentary, the costume drama, and the music video. In that fertile space, the video presents a sonographic and visual history of Bolden, his legend, and the emergence of jazz.

Akomfrah’s work moves across cultures to seamlessly meld history with mythology, the archival with the contemporary, and image with sound. Recognized as a trailblazer in the world of British cinema, he makes films that challenge prevailing narratives and give voice to underrepresented communities. His films are poetic explorations into cultural politics, memory, migration, postcolonialism, and diasporic black identity, ranging in form from documentary to feature film to multichannel video installation.


  • Title: Precarity
  • Creator: John Akomfrah
  • Creator Birth Place: Accra, Ghana
  • Date Created: 2017
  • Location: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
  • Physical Dimensions: 46:03 minutes
  • Type: Video
  • Publisher: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
  • Rights: © Smoking Dogs Films
  • Medium: Three-channel HD video (color, sound), edition 1/5
  • Art Form: Video
  • Credit Line: Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Gift of the artist and Smoking Dogs Films. Commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University with funds provided by the Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Family Fund for Acquisitions, the VIA Art Fund, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. Still courtesy of the artist.

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