Ekow Eshun's new job comes with a really cool office. He was recently appointed artistic director of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, and his office walls are still blank. The space boasts high ceilings and a window you can step through onto a breezy balcony overlooking St. James' Park. "The view is amazing," enthuses Eshun, dressed in a black jacket, black trousers and a light blue T shirt. "I love the fact that you have the institution of Buckingham Palace over there, but then you have the London Eye too. I love the playfulness of it."
Eshun is as interested in work as he is in play. Journalist, broadcaster, cultural commentator, Eshun, 37, wears many hats and is about to don yet another: his first book, Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa, came out this month. It's an engaging memoir-cum-travelogue about a 2002 trip to explore his roots in Ghana. To his shame and disgust, he found that one of his ancestors was a slave trader, a discovery that both shook his world and, paradoxically, freed him from it. "To be honest," he acknowledges quietly, "I haven't really come to terms with it. It's a very salient daily reminder of the fact that there's no such thing as black and white, that everything we do is a kind of mixing up. Everything we do is about contradictions, really." Those contradictions, he thinks, define the world much more honestly than the singular truths he had once searched for. "You realize that things don't have to make sense," he explains, in a way that does.
The son of a Ghanaian diplomat dispatched to London's High Commission by the first post-independence government, which was unceremoniously displaced by a coup in 1966, Eshun was born in London while his father was a political prisoner in Ghana's capital, Accra. On his father's release, Eshun, his mother and three siblings returned to Ghana where they stayed until 1974, when his father took a second posting to London. Yet another coup changed everything, leaving them permanently stranded in England. While studying politics and history at the London School of Economics, Eshun became a reporter for pirate radio station KISS FM, where his immersion in hip culture led him to freelance at The Face magazine, writing his first 100-word article in 1988 on newly fashionable Kickers shoes.
After graduating, he parlayed his freelancing into a staff position and then, at 28, the editorship of Arena, The Face's sister magazine. On top of his current responsibilities, writing for the New Statesman, and working on a documentary for the bbc, he's also an editor of a fashion and ideas magazine, Tank, and a founding member of a consortium called Bug that keeps corporate clients like Sony PlayStation up to date on the latest trends. The eclectic schedule, he says, keeps him stimulated: "I've always been more interested in doing lots of things, really, rather than just one."
Yet despite his success, Eshun was plagued by nightmares in which he was being chased by an assassin with his own face. The dreams finally drove him to seek out his past. He flew to Ghana, he says, "to find out what I was made of." Eshun chronicles his travels visiting forts, braving the not-so-wild elephants of a national park with humour
and insight. The crux of the book is Eshun's discovery about his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. Joseph de Graft, a Dutch slave trader and an ancestor of Eshun's on his mother's side, settled in Ghana in the 1750s and married a local chief's daughter. When De Graft left for the Netherlands, his slave-trading business continued to thrive, maintained by his oldest son. "What's it like to discover your ancestor was a slave trader?" he writes. "The disgust is overpowering. You cannot stop thinking about the men and women he sold on to the ships. And whether the responsibility for his actions runs through your blood."
Eventually, Eshun comes to accept his past and the contradictions he has struggled with in both England and Ghana. He draws invisible circles on a table for emphasis. "You realize that things don't have to have a kind of linear progression, things don't have to have a happy ending, they can just have a question mark. And that's O.K. … It frees you up a little bit." He pauses, laughs: "I walk lighter."