Ekow Eshun – Curator
Africa State of Mind
Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco
For the latest instalment in our Interviews series, we welcome London-based writer and curator Ekow Eshun. Eshun is Chairman of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, overseeing London’s most significant public art programme, and Creative Director of Calvert 22 Foundation, a leading arts space dedicated to the contemporary culture of Eastern Europe. He is also the former Director of the ICA, London, a position he held from 2005-2010. His writing has appeared in publications including the New York Times, the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Observer, Granta, Vogue, New Statesman and Wired. He is the author of Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa, nominated for the Orwell prize, and the editor of Africa Modern: Creating the Contemporary Art of a Continent.
Eshun has recently organised Africa State of Mind for New Art Exchange in Nottingham, an exhibition of 16 artists that subsequently toured to Impressions Gallery, Bradford and then the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, where it runs until November 15th. Here he speaks to photographer and writer Lewis Bush about interrogating ideas of ‘Africanness’ through highly-subjective renderings of life and identity on the continent and the need to reimagine Africa as psychological space as much as a physical territory.
Lewis Bush: Ekow thanks for agreeing to this discussion. I heard you speak at FORMAT Festival earlier in the year, and as always there is never enough time at these things to pick up on all the interesting strands that could be discussed further. Perhaps I could ask you to begin quite simply though, by talking us through Africa State of Mind, your exhibition of emerging African photographers, which opened at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham and is currently on display at Impressions Gallery, Bradford. What was the initial impetus that led you to begin curating it?
Ekow Eshun: There’s a lot of very striking, powerful, artistically ambitious work being created by African photographers at the moment. I wanted to find a way to present some of that work and also do some thinking about the ideas and themes those photographers were engaging with. So the show is both a summation of new photographic practice from Africa and an exploration of how contemporary photographers from the continent are exploring ideas of ‘Africanness’ – along the way revealing Africa to be a psychological space as much as a physical territory; a state of mind as much as a place.
LB: When you delivered your paper during the conference at FORMAT you mentioned your own memories of growing up between Ghana and the United Kingdom. Were there experiences from this time that fed into how you approached this idea of Africa as something which can be as much internal and mutable as external and fixed?
EE: I lived in Ghana for a few years as a young child and what remains most telling from that time isn’t so much specific memories but sense impressions. Taste, smell – red earth, the abrupt vanishing of the equatorial sun at 6pm, the sight of the ocean for the first time, even the very intense odour of open sewers running alongside the pavement in my parents’ home town of Cape Coast. I’ve carried Ghana with me this way since childhood and I guess it’s left me with a continued sense of Africa as an almost hallucinatory condition rather than a place of fixed, ordered realities.
LB: Could you characterise the prevailing trends in contemporary African photography? What sort of themes and approaches are audiences likely to encounter in Africa State of Mind, and beyond it? And in viewing work for the exhibition do you get a sense of different photographic practices and concerns predominating in different parts of the continent?
EE: Yes, and to be clear the exhibition isn’t trying to be a wholesale survey of work from Africa – I’m not sure that would be possible. It’s more an attempt to spy out some of the key thematic tendencies informing the practice of those photographers. The show is oriented around three main themes – Inner Landscapes, Zones of Freedom and Hybrid Cities. Inner Landscapes focuses on photographers whose work offers a deeply personal interpretation of setting or sensibility, in contrast to say, the objective lens of reportage photography. Hybrid Cities documents the African metropolis as a site of rapid transformation. Zones of Freedom brings together photographers whose work explores questions of gender, sexuality and cultural identity.
LB: I’m interested to know why you focused on photography in particular as the main medium for this exhibition – or to put it more broadly and beyond just the context of the exhibition – what do you think is interesting about photography?
EE: Photography is a particularly significant medium in this context. It is the art form that, more than any other, has framed how Africa is represented in the modern era. Colonial period photographs depicted the continent as, in the words of Hegel, ‘enveloped in the dark mantel of Night’, its people only representative of ‘natural man in his completely wild and untamed state’. TV news reports have similarly reinforced an impression of the continent as defined by war and famine. But photography has also enabled the dissemination of contrasting, more affirmative views of Africa. Not least, for example, through the exuberant imagery of master portraitists such as Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita.
LB: That idea of reclaiming photography as a medium from colonialism is very powerful. Have you encountered any interesting examples of African photographers working even more directly with colonial era photographs in an attempt to reclaim or alter their meaning?
EE: Yes, there’s a considerable amount of work in this territory. An important point to consider is that African photographers are perfectly aware of how the continent and its people have been misrepresented in the West historically. So of necessity they’re grappling with that legacy as soon as they pick up a camera. You see less of a dealing with the specifics of an archive than interrogating the history of Western representation. I’ve included work in the exhibition by the very talented Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda which looks very sardonically at the role of the colonial explorer, among other issues. But there are many others exploring some of that territory either explicitly or obliquely, including Edson Chagas, Omar Victor Diop, Shiraz Bayjoo, Lalla Essaydi, Namsa Leuba, Lina Iris Viktor – it’s really a long list.
LB: Returning to photography’s role in Africa briefly, I wonder if there is also a sense of modernism about photography that might be important to projecting a positive, dynamic view of the continent in contrast to those colonial tropes of timelessness and wildness? I remember hearing James Barnor speak about going to the United Kingdom to practice photography shortly after Ghana became independent, and in his words to learn and bring that up to date knowledge back to Ghana. There was something very exciting about the way he talked about photographic knowledge as something that could be as valuable to the forging of a new independent country as the expertise to build infrastructure or run a government. Do you have any thoughts on this?
EE: That’s certainly an approach you can see animating the work of the Malick Sidibe and Seydou Keita – their images speak of the exuberance of independence-era Africa. And that ideas of documenting a nation and its people also informed the practice of an earlier generation of studio photographers, people like SO Alonge who was taking photos of the middle classes in Benin City, Nigeria from the 1930s onwards.
Just as important to highlight though, is the work of photographers whose images create a kind of counter-narrative that runs contrary to what could be described as an officially-sanctioned narrative of nation building. I’m thinking here of someone like Samuel Fosso, whose self-portraits in the 1970s, experimenting with representations of masculinity and gender, marked an act of personal resistance against the authoritarian regime of Jean-Bédel Bokassa in the Central African Republic.
More recently, you can look at the very flamboyant imagery of someone like Athi-Patra Ruga in South Africa, and also see a critique of the failure of the post-apartheid state to live up to the dreams of liberation that inspired people during the decades of white minority rule.
LB: You are also creative director of Calvert 22 and founder of The Calvert Journal. This which interests me both because of the photographic emphasis of that organisation, but also because it seems that eastern Europe has also been subjected to a set of western European fantasies about it, particular in the post-Cold war era. I was wondering though if you see resonances across the two regions?
EE: Yes, to the extent that as you say, both territories continue to be caricatured in the Western imagination. With both The Calvert Journal, and the exhibitions programme at Calvert 22, I’ve concentrated on photography as a means to try to establish a different narrative about what contemporary Eastern Europe looks like and feels like. We’ve presented a number of exhibitions and projects on that subject, including Post-Soviet Visions: image and identity in the new Eastern Europe, which I curated in 2017. And the curator Mark Nash did a fantastic exhibition in 2016, Red Africa, that explored the legacy of the cultural relationships between Africa, the Soviet Union and related countries that flourished during the Cold War.
LB: That’s a really fascinating history, as is the US involvement in Africa and the extent to which parts of the continent became battle fronts between both powers in the Cold War. Lastly, I wonder if you could outline what’s next for you, what new projects are you currently working on?
EE: I’m finishing off the Africa State of Mind book, which will be published by Thames & Hudson next Spring, with contributions from over 50 African photographers. I’ve just recently curated a solo show by the wonderful Moroccan-British photography Hassan Hajjaj, at New Art Exchange, Nottingham. And I’m curating a new photography exhibition, Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain, at Somerset House this June. The Africa State of Mind show is still touring and travelling to the US before returning to the UK in 2020. Then there are a couple of museum shows coming up on the horizon which are already demanding attention. It’s a bit of a busy time… ♦
Image courtesy Ekow Eshun. © Simon Frederick