Ekow Eshun in conversation with Ashraf Jamal
Mikhael Subotzky, Traffic Light Encounter (detail), 2004. Inkjet print mounted to Diasec with frame, 60 x 60 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery.
Ashraf Jamal: Congratulations on editing the first book on Zeitz MOCAA. How did you come to nurse this project into being?
Ekow Eshun: The first, important thing to say is that Africa Modern is not a book about the museum. It takes the opening of the first major art museum in Africa as its starting point and develops from there but it’s published independently of the museum itself.
The book came about when I was talking to Thomas Heatherwick, the architect of MOCAA earlier this year. He was excited about his work on the museum but also keen that it not be seen in isolation of its surroundings. So we started talking about a book that would explore the cultural landcsape the museum has emerged from, ie the fantastically rich art and cultural scene in South Africa, and across the African continent as a whole. The aim was to try and get a breadth of creative voices involved and, in a small way, paint a portrait of what seems to me to be a particularly dynamic moment in African contemporary art.
With that goal in mind, we got philanthropic support from the wonderful Lady Linda Davies, whose charitable organisation the KT Wong Foundation published the book. And Wallpaper magazine also got involved to do the art direction. So, a great coalition. What I’m really excited about are the artistic contributions to the book. A number of South Africa’s leading artists created exclusive visual projects including Pieter Hugo, Nicholas Hlobo, Mohau Modisakeng, Penny Siopis, Frances Goodman, Mikhael Subotzky, Mary Sibande and more. I gave them ten pages each and only two weeks to deliver and they all came through. It was amazingly generous of them. And there are some great, insightful essays too, from the likes of Achille Mbembe, Sisonke Msimang, Ngugi we Thiong’o – and not least, yourself Ashraf.
Zeitz MOCAA promises to be Africa’s Bilbao, its Tate Modern. Do you think this is a reasonable dream? A museum dedicated to contemporary African Art. To my knowledge nothing comparable exists on the continent.
No, I don’t believe there is anything of that scale. We were keen to celebrate the acheivement because it’s a real statement of intent about the importance of art in a city when a museum of that scale opens. We’ve seen it happen in London where contemporary art used to be scoffed at as pretentious and elitist. Today art is something the city is very proud of, and a lot of that has to do with the success and visibility of Tate Modern.
The question in Cape Town is how the fact that MOCAA is a private museum rather than a public one will affect things. That’s no criticism to the museum. The fact that it exists out of private funding makes it an ever rarer, harder acheievement to pull off. The pity is that there’s no similar public commitment to the role of culture. But of course, that’s easier said than done when public finances are always so stretched.
Contemporary African art is big. Why do you think this is so? Is contemporary African art merely the next marketplace? Or do you think African art has a greater global traction? In your involvement with the Zeitz MOCAA project – which artists have particularly compelled or fascinated you, and why?
I feel the ‘Africa rising’ narrative is a dangerously superficial one. I’m very suspicious of a situation where African art is being talked up as a hot thing. The worth of African art isn’t to do with geoographical specificity per se, but rather what perspective, what particular insight on the world, artists can command from their position on the globe. As Eric B and Rakim once said, ‘It ain’t where you’re from it’s where you’re at’. The African artists that excite me – and there are lots of them – do so because they have a very nuanced take on a whole range of subjects, from the impact of globalisation and the legacy of slavery, to questions of race and gender.
Some artists, who were also contributors to the book, came at those issues of historical memory, place and identity in very profound ways. For instance Mohau Modisakeng’s film, Passage, which he showed at the Venice biennale, was deeply moving – one of the best things there. And Mary Sibande has a really fascinating way of thinking about the role of women in a patriarchial society. I don’t want to necessarily reduce those artists to the themes they might explore in their work. What excites me above all is art that is able to render the world strange and mysterious and confounding and in that bracket I’d certainly place those artists, and pretty much most of the others that contributed to the book, including Athi-Patra Ruga, Penny Siopis and Ayana Jackson.
I wanted to think about racial identity both as a constraint and a means to a personal liberation. It’s never about not being black – if such a thing were possible. For me, it’s always about being black on your own terms.
Steven Bantu Biko prophesied that Africa would give the world a ‘human face’. Given over 500 years of Western colonisation, surely something has to give; surely relations with Africa have to change? Is it possible that Africa is the site, the energy point, for a new global ethics?
I agree with Biko’s point. As a consequence of that history of colonisation, Africa has a unique perspective to share with the world. Whether that will be heard anytime soon is another matter. I’m not so optimistic. When I think of how the West sees Africa, what always comes to my mind is Hegel’s old canard about Africa ‘lying beyond’ history’ and ‘enveloped in the dark mantle of Night’, its people representative of ‘natural man in his completely wild and untamed state’. That still seems to me a representative view of how the West sees Africa.
You are London born, of Ghanaian extraction – how do you position yourself in the world? From your perspective – how do you see and understand Africa? Could you talk about your memoir Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa?
Black Gold of the Sun was a memoir about growing up in Britain and returning as an adult to Ghana, where I’d lived for a few years as a small child. In the book I travelled across Ghana and also walked in the footsteps of other Western returnees to Ghana including the likes of Malcolm X, Richard Wright and W.E.B DuBois. In that book, and in fact pretty much through my life, I come back to DuBois’s concept of double consciousness – the pyschological condition of ‘always looking at one’s self through the eyes’ of white society’ and ‘measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt’.
DuBois described double consciousness as a burden and growing up in Britain it certainly felt that way. As an adult though, I’ve also come to think of it as a blessing, a birthright, a privileged way of seeing the world that begins with a presumption of the complexity of human relationships. There’s no naivety to that viewpoint, but there is a perpetual sense of possibility to it.
Black Gold was published in 2005. Have your views changed? Is seems to me that racism is on the increase in the UK and across Europe. With the rise in nativism and populism it seems increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to sustain Mandela’s global ideal of a post-racial society. And it seems that the Grenfell Tower disaster has only further exposed the hypocrisy built into Britain’s body-politic – any thoughts?
I’m still reeling from Brexit, from Trump, from the naked racism and bigotry of it all. For a while, I guess, with Obama in power, it felt like we were visible and present. It felt like we were winning, albeit in the most qualified of ways. But this is definitely a darker period we’ve entered. It reminds me of growing up in Seventies Britain when it seemed entirely acceptable for people of colour to be mocked and abused and attacked in the streets. I feel like our only answer in Britain is to insist on being seen and heard – through our politics, our art, our music, our words; through any means that don’t allow others to speak for us, to reduce us and objectify us.
You have worked between art-fashion-music, under the rubric of pop or contemporary culture – could you tell us how these modalities operate and coexist? Are we moving towards a more hybrid and interdisciplinary aesthetic? Are we done with canonical approaches to the Arts?
I’ve never made a distinction between any art forms I’m interested in. As well as editing Africa Modern, a book on art, I’m also writing another one on the cultural history of hip-hop. I think you can bring the same critical facilities to both of those, and other subjects. The cultural forms I enjoy open me up to thinking about race, identity, masculinity – so many things. The same’s true from looking at the art of David Hammons, Steve McQueen, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Basquiat or Samuel Fosso to listening to Kendrick Lamar, Fela, Alice Coltrane or Drake, or watching Moonlight or Daughters of the Dust. They’re not all on the same level of depth and seriousness but you can find the same level of reward and pleasure in engaging with them.
Mohau Modisakeng, still from Passage, 2017. Epson hot press natural, 150 x 200 cm, Edition of 6. Image courtesy of AKAA Art Fair.
I am very intrigued by your latest publication, through Granta – Soon Comes Night. Its an ominous title, and given the excerpt I’ve read, a harrowingly emotional introspection. You return to your childhood, your sense of alienation, blackness in a white world, you relation to women, therapy… The writing is astonishingly honest. What inspired you to put these words down?
Soon Comes Night is a piece of memoir I wrote for Granta. In my 20s, I suffered terrible nightmares. A sinister figure stalked me through my dreams and for many years I lived in fear of going to sleep because he’d appear at night and try to kill me. It was all quite intense and it tied back to the experience of returning to Britian from Ghana as a young child and finding myself in 1970s Britain where black people were routinely humiliated and mocked in a way that seemed utterly acceptable to most Britons.
I decided to write about it and to do so in as honest and open a way as possible and that was difficult. It took a long time to find the right words. It was partly, what, an exorcism? But more than that really, an assertion of creative freedom. The goal was to be as unsparingly honest as possible. I don’t feel I have anything to hide and I want to be as visible, as whole as possible in a country like Britain at a time like this. I guess, to go back to your earlier question, it was one way I found to respond to the claustrophobia of Brexit Britain.
Are you a fan of James Baldwin? Which writers have particularly inspired you? Do you believe that it is impossible to think outside of race, or identity politics? Or, through Soon Comes Night, are you asking us to though the burden – racial-sexual-cultural-historic – that shapes our lives?
Of course I’m a fan of Baldwin. Who isn’t? Beauty, anger, elegance, empathy, all wrapped together – no-one does it more movingly than him. Writers who’ve inspired me? Let me just take current favourites rather than all time greats: Claudia Rankine, Paul Beaty, WG Sebald, Marlon James, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Henry Dumas, Colson Whitehead, Cixin Liu.
I’m not sure it’s very interesting to think outside of race. For me things have always felt richer to understand the world through it. Not because that takes us to a place of constraint but because it demands then that you approach things with an acknowledgement of their complexity, of the long historical memory attached to almost any place, any moment.
I curated a show in London at The Photographer’s Gallery called ‘Made You Look: dandyism and black masculinity’. The aim was to explore how photographers, including greats like Malick Sidibe and Samuel Fosso, have captured the black male presence. And how black men themselves comport themselves in front of a camera. I was interested in the ways that black men are both hyper visible and hyper vulnerable in Western society. And I wanted to think about racial identity both as a constraint and a means to a personal liberation. It’s never about not being black – if such a thing were possible. For me, it’s always about being black on your own terms.
Ashraf Jamal is a writer, teacher and editor.