A painting of a woman standing with two children of different ages.

Arthur Timothy, And the Clamour Became a Voice (E Il Clamore e’Divenuto Voce) 2023.

Photo courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957.

Sankofa and the Sands of Time: How Ekow Eshun Curated his New Exhibition

The writer and curator looked to his Ghanaian roots to put together the show, In and Out of Time, which is opening at Accra’s Gallery 1957 this weekend.

Ekow Eshun has been many things over his career of more than twenty years. In 1997, he made history by becoming the first Black editor of a major magazine in the U.K. when he took over Arena magazine. In 2005, he became the first Black director of a major arts organization, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Later that year, his memoir, Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa, which explored his return trip to Ghana, was nominated for the Orwell Prize. More recently, the polymath has switched his sights to curating independent shows that tackle race and identity, such as 2022’s We Are History and In The Black Fantastic, staged earlier this year. And yet, as Eshun tells OkayAfrica, his sights are only ever set on uncharted waters.

“I am interested in things I haven't done before,” he says, ahead of the opening of his latest exhibition, In and Out Of Time, which is in collaboration with Accra’s Gallery 1957. The exhibition is inspired by the Ghanaian concept of sankofa, deriving its meaning from the idea of returning to the past to move forward. In bringing together established and emerging artists from Africa and the diaspora, the exhibition aims to explore African cultural notions of non-linear time.

‘‘Ghanaian culture has debated ideas of time, debated ideas of movement, of progression across space and time across cultural history,’’ says Eshun. ‘‘The idea of time not being linear has allowed people of African origin to conceive their place in the world with a sophistication that I think has eluded certain Western notions of progress. The idea there's only one way to read how we move through space or how we move through time is limiting.’’

The exhibition has new artworks from a range of mediums, including painting, collage and moving images, and features artists like Tunji Adeniyi-Jones, Arthur Timothy, Julian Knxx, Tiffanie Delune, Zanele Muholi, Amoako Boafo and Godfried Donkor. In and Out of Time runs parallel to a solo show of artist-in-residence Yaw Owusu, curated by Nigerian curator Azu Nwagbogu, as well as a presentation of artist Priscilla Kennedy, winner of the Gallery’s Yaa Asantewaa Art Prize 2022.

Eshun spoke to OkayAfrica about the process of selecting artists to work with, maintaining curiosity well into adulthood, and the concept of time.

The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

How do you feel ahead of the opening of the exhibition?

I think good. I'm pleased with the selection of artists that we've got in the show. I think it was last year, I was in Accra and I came across this space that Gallery 1957 have. I wanted to use that space as an opportunity to bring together what I hope is a dynamic selection of artists from Ghana and from across the African diaspora, and that's what we've been able to do.

How did you go around selecting the artists to work with for this exhibition?

I always start a show thinking about the theme, thinking about artists whose work I think can speak to those themes. I'm also trying to look at artists, and think about what their work has in common. The goal isn't to say that everyone is the same. The goal is hopefully to highlight some affinity, some points of potential connection, whether those are aesthetic connections or connections in terms of ideas, and to just introduce a way of seeing and maybe re-seeing or reframing the work of those artists as a collective exploration into a set of ideas.

How has the concept of ‘sankofa’ inspired In and Out of Time?

The show is inspired in part by sankofa, but fundamentally it's a show about non-linear time. Sankofa is an idea, the idea of interrogating the past. It's something that's embedded deep within Ghanaian culture. Also, I was fascinated by how there were parallels between this idea of sankofa and ideas that recur in things like quantum physics. This idea of time as non-linear time exists in a simultaneous state. Time is moving outwards rather than moving forward. And it seems to me somehow these cultural-historical ideas and notions that come out of quantum physics were in one way or another talking about something similar. These ideas with non-linear time also offer a way to interrogate an idea of civilizational progress.

So one of the experiences I think that you know we have as African people is the idea that in the Western imagination, our cultural identities have historically been thought of in the West as less developed or primitive, less civilized than Western ideas of modernity. I've been thinking about how, culturally speaking, ideas like sankofa disrupt this idea that there's a linear way to think about time, to think about progress that leads on.

An image of the curator looking off to the side.Ekow Eshun’s latest exhibition is at Accra’s Gallery 1957.Courtesy of Ekow Eshun and Gallery 1957.

You seem to be interested in this combination theme of science and culture across your work, especially in projects like In The Black Fantastic. Where did this curiosity of time, and exploring it through this particular lens come from?

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time reading science fiction, and reading comics. I kind of took seriously the invitation that comes out of science fiction to think of the world as unfixed. To think of the world as a place of potential possibility, strangeness, not everydayness, and the other side of that was that it felt like this is also a way to avoid being trapped within Western imagination.

I read an interview in The Guardian where you said growing up, you wanted to be Spider-Man. And what you're saying right now requires you to believe in infinite possibilities, which is a thing that I think is linked to a child-like wonder. How do you manage to keep that as you go through life as an adult?

I don't even know if I have a real answer to that other than I spend pretty much most of my life looking at the work of artists, watching films, reading books. I've been invested in all of these things from a very early age, and it turns out that they help. Early on, it seemed to me that there was something fictional or phoney about the world that I was presented with, and this idea that there's only one way to read the world. Once you step outside that, to some extent, it's not about living in fantasy, but it is about constructing a world on your terms, also. Because the alternative to that is endless constraint. The alternative to that is being required to see the world, and accept the world, through someone else's eyes. That doesn't seem tenable to me. So yeah, there's a daily task of just trying to figure out the ways that you can be alive.

You never really arrive somewhere, do you? Where you get to a point where you say 'Oh, that's enough. I'm done now.' I'm curious about a lot of things and what I'm most curious about are the things that I can't quite figure out yet how to do. Those are the things that seem to me the most interesting. I don't spend that much time looking back at what I've done. I spend time being anxious that there's not enough time to do it all. I think I was lucky early on in my career. I started primarily as a journalist, working at magazines. The great thing about it is you have a license to wander into other people's worlds and businesses and kind of explore these other spaces or these other opportunities.

A black and white photo of a woman in traditional garb.Zanele Muholi, Ziphi II, Emhlabeni, 2019.Photo courtesy the artist and Gallery 1957.

Curiosity seems to sit in the middle of your work. Were you a curious child growing up?

I think I spent a lot of time trying to understand stuff. Partly, there is also something about being in a country like Britain. Britain is a country full of social codes. It's full of unspoken customs. It's full of these strange demarcations and barriers of class and race and status, and one of the experiences, I think, of living in a country like this, is that by default, reluctantly almost, you end up with a kind of learned skill of negotiating social space. You get very attuned thinking about how people talk because in Britain people don't say what they mean very often.

What’s the most fascinating thing about the Ghanaian art scene right now?

I think it's so amazingly vibrant at the moment. There's so much that is happening in Ghana, and so much of that seems to me to be coming from artists themselves. This is the thing that's most exciting to me. There's a generation of artists who are both making work that exists that is inspiring on an international level and who are also involved in building and expanding an infrastructure of creative thinking and working and sharing in Ghana. I find all of that very inspiring and exciting.

‘In and Out of Time,’ runs until 12 December 2023 at Gallery 1957, Accra.