Ekow Eshun: ‘When I grew up I wanted to be Spider-Man’

My earliest memory is seeing the ocean for the first time. I was in a car aged three, driving along the Atlantic coast in Ghana. I was so struck by the light on the water and the incessant waves. It was like seeing another world. Before that, I’d only known land.

My parents led by example. They came to Britain from Ghana in the early 60s. They didn’t tell us we had to work twice as hard, they modelled it. My dad did an MBA as an adult. My mum was a nurse and also did a degree. It was about extending their opportunities, navigating a world tilted against people of colour. Their capacity to adapt, survive and thrive was inspiring.

Superheroes were my childhood refuge. 1970s and 1980s Britain was a bizarre and racist place. I read Marvel comics and watched sci-fi films as a way to think beyond the everyday.

I did a bungee jump at a Tribal Gathering rave in the 1990s – I decided it would be good idea to leap off a crane above the crowd. It was like a living nightmare, and it went on for a surprisingly long time. Stepping into the void is a feeling I’ve never forgotten.

Keep on Movin’, that Soul II Soul song, is my guiding principle. As a black person, people are always trying to put you in a corner, confine you or constrain you. Keep on creating, imagining and progressing. Otherwise they’ll hold you down, and you can’t have that.

Representation is improving in the arts, but people of colour remain the minority. There’s a game I play with a couple of friends at the Venice Biennale. We compare who we get mistaken for. I get mistaken for pretty much any other black person in the art world. The most egregious one was Mark Bradford, a great California artist who is 6ft 7in tall and rake thin.

Don’t chase money, chase happiness. Happiness is about love, human connection and ordinary intimacy.

When I grew up I wanted to be Spider-Man, a nuclear physicist or a writer. I didn’t have superpowers and was terrible at science, but one out of three ain’t bad.

Parenthood has taught me that I know nothing. My kids are 12 and 15 and think I’m some sort of walking idiot.

A stolen pamphlet changed my life. At Brent town hall library in my teens, I found a publication about British cinema. Inside was an essay by Stuart Hall, the cultural theorist, about black Britishness. It was the first time I’d read anyone describe my experience and it blew my mind. I ended up stealing it. It turned out it was published by the ICA – and I became the director of the ICA many years later – partly because of how this publication opened up my life.

My worst habit is work. I’ve edited out all my other vices – I’m quite abstemious. I gave up drinking. I’m a vegetarian. I don’t do caffeine. I’m a super-fun guy basically.

Style, not fashion, is the key. To quote Eric B & Rakim: “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” It’s about defining yourself on your own terms, how you carry yourself, what you bring to any given scenario.

Love Island is a cloud over our summers. My wife Jenny’s affection for that show is the only barrier in our relationship. Otherwise she’s amazing.

Ekow Eshun has curated In the Black Fantastic at the Hayward Gallery, 29 June to 18 September, and a parallel programme of film screenings at BFI Southbank


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