Ekow Eshun: ‘The concerns of my In the Black Fantastic exhibition seem absolutely relevant in Ireland’

The curator jumped at the chance to talk about his groundbreaking exhibition in a setting of some significance in the tangled history of Anglo-Irish relations

Acclaimed curator Ekow Eshun travels to Ireland next week. His exhibition In the Black Fantastic at the Hayward Gallery was one of the most highly rated and popular shows in London in 2022. The show marshalled work by 11 contemporary artists “from the African diaspora”, most of them well known. Chris Ofili, Ellen Gallagher and Kara Walker, for example, all have well-established international reputations – and some of their work has been seen in Ireland.

Eshun’s achievement was to bring them together in a way that not only showcased their art but highlighted subtle, interwoven connections and commonalities, amplifying their collective voice, knitting together their imaginative worlds, so that the whole was greater than its parts – as every group exhibition should be, but rarely is.

Significantly, In the Black Fantastic banished the tendency to cast African – and Black – art as a stereotypical expression of troubled identity within the frame of western culture. It did so partly on the basis of an appeal to, as the title indicates, the fantastic: to science fiction, myth and the Afro-futurist aesthetic.

This is not to say that the work ignored contemporary realities. It addressed, and addresses, those realities via liberating, imaginative fantasy, proposing speculative alternatives, “new ways of being”, as Eshun put it, in the world.


In a way, the exhibition was overdue. Not to understate his contribution, I suggested to Eshew, but it was surely inevitable, it was just a question of when? He laughs. “Yes. But then, I feel that if an event is really worthwhile and succeeds, it has a sense of inevitability about it.”

Did its success surprise him? “Well, I knew these were really great artists, I absolutely love their work. But the unknown element was bringing them together. You tend to work on an exhibition over a long period of time, and it’s all theoretical until the moment you see the work physically there in the space, and of course, it cannot be quite as you imagined it, it is different in reality. So yes, I was surprised – and pleased, I have to say.”

When he was approached by Aoife Ruane, director of Drogheda’s Highlanes Gallery, to deliver a lecture as part of its Winter Brights – Ideas & Influence season, he didn’t hesitate. And he will be at the Highlanes on Wednesday, November 8th, to discuss In the Black Fantastic.

He is aware of the significance of the context. “I’ve been to Ireland several times, to Belfast, and Dublin, but never to Drogheda.” He’s interested in talking about the thinking behind In the Black Fantastic in a setting – the Boyne Valley – of some significance in the tangled history of Anglo-Irish relations. As with the British relationship to the legacy of empire, I mention that history is still a live issue in the context, for example, of Brexit and Northern Ireland. “Absolutely,” he agrees: “That’s what is fascinating, to take the concerns of the exhibition and see if you can have that conversation in different places, different circumstances, and it seems absolutely relevant in Ireland.”

—  It’s a thrilling enterprise, but you’re never sure until the doors open if it’s going to work

Eshun was born in London, into a Ghanaian family. His father was a diplomat and supporter of Kwame Nkrumah, the progressive leader who led the country to independence in 1957. But Nkrumah was deposed in a military coup in 1966. Eshun grew up in London and studied history and politics at the LSE. He’s written about his Ghanaian heritage and his experiences in England in a memoir, Black Gold of the Sun. Even as a student, he was a hugely energetic presence in cultural life and he became head of the Institute of Contemporary Arts for a five-year term, also building a reputation as an incisive cultural commentator and writing widely on the arts.

He’s gone on to curate a series of important exhibitions (and write accompanying publications) including, besides In the Black Fantastic, Africa State of Mind, an influential survey of contemporary African photography.

There’s another major exhibition in the offing: The Time is Always Now is due to open at the National Portrait Gallery, London early in 2024. “It’s been four years in the making and will feature work by 20 or so artists. The idea is to explore the representation of the black figure in contemporary art.”

Does he feel he’s learning, as a curator? “You always learn. I think with experience you learn you have to trust your own ideas. But I still find it a nerve-wracking process. I mean, first and foremost I’m always a huge fan of the artists I work with, and in making an exhibition the question is, can I enable the audience to connect with the excitement that I feel. It’s my responsibility to do that, to show their work in the best possible light. And I find I take that more and more seriously. It’s a thrilling enterprise, but you’re never sure until the doors open if it’s going to work.”

  • Ekow Eshun will speak at Highlanes Gallery, Laurence Street, Drogheda, on Wednesday, November 8th. The event runs from 7pm-9pm and includes a reception with refreshments at 7pm, Eshun’s lecture at 7.45pm, followed by a Q&A session moderated by artist Joy Gerrard.