‘Sankofa’ is a Twi word meaning ‘To Retrieve’. As a concept, it is a major principle belonging to the Akan people of Ghana, and it postulates that it is important to remember the past to make positive progress in the future. In other terms, you must retrieve lessons from the past to make the best of the present (which is the future of the past in question) and the future, or simply, we must go backward to move forward. The idea of ‘Time’ spawns so many concepts and makes room for creative exploration. This is the basis for ‘In and Out of Time’, an exhibition in Accra, Ghana, curated by Ghanaian-British writer, editor, and curator - Ekow Eshun, in conjunction with Gallery1957.
Amoako Boafo, Installation View of Seated Forward Fold, 2023, Oil on canvas, 180 x 167 cm, courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957.
The exhibition kicked off on the 16th of September, and it runs through to the 12th of December 2023, through this period, Eshun, and Gallery1957 seeks to interrogate what time means as a concept and the artworks exhibited are meant to challenge the conventional linear narratives of progress and modernity, which have traditionally marginalized individuals of African descent by depicting them as less developed than their Western counterparts. Instead, the pieces on display embrace perspectives from African culture of non-linear time and incorporate the concept of circular time introduced by American scholar Michelle Wright.
As Ekow Eshun continues his inquisition into narratives around time, modernity, and progression, with a few questions, and answers, we take a deeper look at the themes and processes, straight from the horse's mouth.
Todd Gray, Ghana Chief, 2022, UV laminate, 153.3 x 206.4 x 7 cm, courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957.
‘In and Out of Time’ is curated to challenge conventional linear narratives of progress and modernity. In what ways do the artworks displayed convey this challenge, and what impact do you hope this will have on perceptions of African culture and history?
The exhibition really gathers together artists that are thinking in different ways about concepts or experiences of time. Thinking about this in their position, from their kind of cultural heritage and within the African diaspora. Now, we might think about this in a number of different ways. So, formally, in terms of the artwork involved, we see a range of different approaches. The exhibition includes paintings, photography, collage work, and film work. A range of different practices which all have different approaches to time to some extent. Film work extends across a duration, and Collage work addresses simultaneity in time. But let’s take a couple of examples of what it might mean to interrogate these ideas of linear time. So if we look at the work of Todd Gray for instance, He’s an LA-based artist who spends some of his time in Ghana. His works are photographs, but the photographs are also collages, and they collide together different scenes. So, within one image, we see a photograph of landscape like a river or water, photographed in Ghana, and simultaneously within that same image, we also see images or statues from the European renaissance. Classical statues, sculptures, and buildings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe, chiefly in Italy. These collisions of time and place offer a way of deliberately collapsing time, but also making connections across space. Such that we think, not necessarily in Western linear time but progress and development, we can think in one direction from African underdevelopment to Western or European development and civilization. But to a more collapsed, interlinked lattice of connection which allows us to think in the present day about the historic relationship between Europe and Africa that dates back to the times of slavery and the historic exploitation of people of African origin in Europe. and to think in the present about how Europe’s culture, history and economies have been based in part on the physical and financial resources of Africa. Todd Gray’s work on the exhibition allows us to think across time, and make those kinds of connections across history and place and as a photographer, he’s situated in the present moment. Those relationships and interlinkages over time remain with us in the present day. Let’s look at the work of another artist coming from a very different position. Amoako Boafo is a noted Ghanaian painter. He has contributed one painting to the show and it chiefly shows a male figure, from the back. I think what Amoako is particularly skilled at… is scaling down time. So he’s painting each form delicately with color and contrast. But more crucially, he allows us to see a black figure who is not working in resistance, is not actively engaged in opposition, who is not engaged somehow with dealing with or coping with the onset of time and movement. Amoako offers something else. He offers stillness and the beauty that comes from what the African-American scholar Kevin Quarshie talks about - ‘The Sovereignty of Quiet’, and I see that in Amoako’s painting where we have a figure that is simply about being, rather than being in or against a connection to a resistance to whiteness as the prevailing norm. Amoako allows us see these figures in their stillness and, therefore in their forms. With those two examples, I guess we see two different ways of approaching, interrogating, and looking beyond the notion that time only moves in one way and in position therefore, gets placed on answers of people of African origin that is somehow the base origin of our civilization. So, just those two, but other artworks take different approaches and the goal of the show is to bring together different perspectives and viewpoints on how we might stand and experience, and explore time as figures of African origin.
Shiraz Bayjoo, Pu Travers Sa Dilo (To cross this water), 2023, Dye sublimation print on canvas, cotton batique, braided trim, sapele wood, 700 x 175 cm, courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957.
Time as a concept is multifaceted and complex. How has your curation of "In and Out of Time" explored and interpreted various aspects of time beyond its conventional understanding?
My start point with the show is that it brings together a range of artists, some of them Ghanaian and some of them internationally based. What I wanted to do was, I suppose, to create a space for looking and wandering, and a space that also takes cognizance of the exhibition’s origins in Ghana, to draw from the Ghanaian cultural concept of ‘Sankofa’. The idea of Sankofa is the idea of looking to the past in order to look ahead or the effort to think simultaneously outside the present moment. It seemed relevant, and possibly useful as an idea to try and draw from these age-old cultural ideas like ‘Sankofa’. Because what I wanted to do was think about what happens when you bring contemporary artists or when galleries bring contemporary artists together in a simple space within Ghana. The work becomes (hopefully), an invitation to look at those artists’ individual practice and their ways of work. But then to look collectively at how we might imagine ourselves free of some of these Western formulations of linearity. So the show invites responses to Sankofa. The show itself is also cognizant of the ways that even in the West, we might question ideas of linear time. So one of the books, called it ‘works’ that was an inspiration for the show was a book by an African-American scholar called Michelle Wright. She wrote a book called - ‘The Physics of Blackness’. Which is a book that I found useful because it made a parallel between quantum physics and ideas of time as a simultaneous experience that’s within quantum physics and made a parallel between those and the black experience at the time. All of which is just to say that the show is trying to illustrate both these cultural conceptual ideas of time but also a kind of subjective experience of time. So I guess that my proposition really, once we get to the heart of this, is that I suggest that to a greater or lesser extent, people of African origin, we carry in our heads, 400 years of history. 400 years of engaging with the West, 400 years of addressing of slavery and its legacies and its afterlives. And, I’m interested in what that historic sensibility in different forms can look like. What does it all look like for us to carry history in our heads? carry a collective memory and it feels to me that some artists in the exhibition are addressing some aspects of that I wanted to establish a space where some of these cultural ideas like Sankofa might meet these scientific ideas around quantum physics and spontaneity.
Julian Knoxx, ...?inawhirlwindofencounters, 2023, 4k digital film (colour, sound, approx. 4 min) and 35mm film transferred to 2k video (colour, sound, approx. 4min), courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957.
As a curator, to what extent do you believe art can be a catalyst, or tool for reshaping and restoring historical narratives, particularly those that have marginalized individuals of African descent? What role does "In and Out of Time" play in this context?
I think for me, it’s less an issue of reshaping narratives, but simply offering alternative routes to see it. I’d like to feel that an exhibition, in this case ‘In and Out of Time’, but potentially lots of other shows can bring the viewers in contact with the imaginative terrain of the artists on show, and in doing so, the artwork or exhibition doesn’t necessarily provide an answer but it does perhaps offer a glimpse into another route towards perception. I intend to find that the more artwork you look at, the more you realize that there is another terrain to be imagined. The more you realize that some of the constructs or some of the ways that we are invited to perceive culture, society, and even time don’t have to be the single definitive approach. They offer us poetic or visual conjurings, implications, and imaginings and I draw my inspiration from the work of a range of artists. Pretty much every artist on the ‘In and Out of Time’ show for example because they seem to offer me a route towards possibility. One of the reasons I like, and believe in curating exhibitions is because we get to create a room or space that has in its heart, these propositions about imagining, looking, and constructing in different ways, sometimes different, sometimes similar, and sometimes radically different.
Lyle Ashton Harris, Double Gasper, 2019, Unique assemblage (Ghanaian cloth, two dye sublimation prints), 103.2 x 126.4 cm, courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957.
Can you tell us more about what the collaborative process between yourself and Gallery1957 in bringing this exhibition to life was like? What obstacles and opportunities arose during the curation of the show, given its ambitious goals and themes?
It was a really good process. So, I’m in one country, and continent and the gallery is in another continent, and so there’s a distance factor involved. But, the show started really when I was in Accra last summer and I saw this amazing space that the gallery has which is now the location of the exhibition. Which wasn’t their regular space but it’s a very large, open, and raw concrete, like an unfinished space. I just thought the space was extraordinary, and I wanted to put on a show - the exhibition in that space because I love the scale of it. So, from there, we asked ourselves ‘What kind of exhibitions work in space like this?’. I believe the expansiveness of the space prompted me to start thinking in expansive ways about different ideas, which is how we came to think about ‘Time’ and ‘Space’, hence ‘In and Out of Time’. But, most of the process of working was necessarily done remotely. I spoke to different artists about how I’d like for them to take part in the show, I went to Ghana once earlier this year again to look at the space and talk to some of the artists. All the way through, it was a good process in that I had good conversations with those artists. Some of them made works, especially for the show, which was great. Most of the conversations were about ‘How can we get this right in terms of selection?’ but also just in terms of the tone of the exhibition. In terms of the tone, look, aesthetic, and feeling of the show. That’s what I was concerned about. I was asking “How do you create space within which people can explore or discover, and can engage with the work?” and also how to create space with a group exhibition that does honor and justice to the work of each individual artist on the show. So, I’m always thinking of how you work with the space to create an experience for the artists that works for the audience. This just meant you spend an amount of time, for me, looking online to create a space of sovereignty, and artistic discovery. In terms of my relationship with Gallery1957, it was very good. They’ve been great to work with. They’re very open and positive about the artists and the show. A bunch of the artists already work with them, and some I introduced to them. I’d like to think that the end result in terms of the exhibition itself speaks for the process that we worked through. Which was open, collaborative, and generative, amongst other things. I’d definitely do this again.
Priscilla Kennedy, Flying Whales, 2023, Beads, Sequins, Glow in the dark threads with Velvet cut outs embroidered on Kente, 172.7 x 202.4 cm, courtesy of the artist and Gallery 1957.
Courtesy of Ekow Eshun, Gallery1957.