A man dressed in black with a gray blazer stands before a travertine wall

Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Gus Casely-Hayford at the Getty Center

“To learn history is something that has been systematically denied over generations,” said Gus Casely-Hayford during a recent visit to the Getty. The director of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art had come to give a talk about the growth of West Africa’s medieval empires and the powerful emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa.

The theme underlying Casely-Hayford’s work has always been the urgent, contemporary need to unearth and understand the historical and cultural stories of Africa.

He organized Africa 05—the largest celebration of Africa in the U.K., with more than 1,000 exhibitions and events to highlight all of the dynamic regions. For London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2015, he developed an exhibition exploring Britain’s abolition of slavery. Also a broadcaster, he has presented from Tate Britain’s British Walks for Sky Arts, to two series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa for BBC, and even gave a TEDGlobal Talk on pre-colonial Africa.

Casely-Hayford is now returning to the U.K. to take on a role as the inaugural director at the V&A East, a brand-new museum and research center to open in 2023 at Stratford Waterfront.

Casely-Hayford reminds us to embrace history, to learn from the past, and that we can rewrite the narratives. “These aren’t just histories for Africans and people of African descent,” he said during the recent discussion, “they are all our histories.”

I caught up with him to ask about collecting African art today, and why understanding history is important to how we talk about contemporary culture.

Mask of a person wearing a helmet adorned with small figures with a matching collar

Queen Mother Pendant Mask: Iyoba, 16th century, Edo peoples. Ivory, iron, copper. The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1972. 1978.412.323. Source: http://metmuseum.org/

Getty’s exhibition on Balthazar explored the European depiction of an African character. Is there a counterpoint? Is there a particular European character that is depicted in African Art?

I showed the depiction of the Queen Mother with the Europeans woven into her hair. That work is interesting because I think most people have an understanding of Africa and Africans as being in this subservient position. I was very keen to demonstrate how this Balthazarian idea wasn’t just a medieval thing, it transcended this vision.

I think the thing that is inordinately powerful about the Black figure is that so often, when there is such strength represented, usually it is isolated. As a viewer, you then feel a duty to represent who you are as well as your own natural feelings. I think that is pretty key to understanding that Balthazarian view of this figure sits on that edge between isolation and engagement so that it has a perspective which is very unique and important.

Your current work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and your new role at the V&A East, reaches across generations and cultures. Do you consider your historical work to be a form of advocacy?

Well, I think all good history should speak not just to the time of publication and its immediate audiences. It shouldn’t just be academic, I think it needs to speak to and of the now. The beauty of history is that we, and future generations, have the benefit of being able to learn from it. Absolutely, there’s so much to learn from African history. Having history as an intellectual, emotional underpinning, and having a sense of narrative is a luxury.

I think it is, quite simply, terrible for people of African descent or anyone who has any sensitivity to significant omissions of cultural narrative within current cultural and educational outputs. It just somehow lessens everything that we offer to the young if we are systematically not telling the longest story of cultural development that there is available to tell.

And so my prayer is that, my hope is that this [history] is not just seen as being something which is important in itself but is seen as being a moral thing, a political thing. To learn this history is something that has been systematically denied over generations. So now I think we need to systematically attempt to recalibrate things and to make sure that we invest in doing that. I think if we were to do that many of the really shocking statements that one even hears very powerful politicians saying about people of African descent but also of Africa – they just would not be possible, but also they would not be excusable.

The level of ignorance of Africa, the tolerance of that is just something which just makes me feel very sad, and so I feel that I absolutely have a duty, that I have a drive to do this. I do it because I look at the next generation and feel like, why should you suffer this because of our lack of guts to actually stand up and say that this needs to be done?

What are the differences in collecting African art in the US versus the UK?

I felt hugely proud to have been given the opportunity to work in America and to have been really touched by a brilliant generation who have really transformed our sector and the work in the States, particularly in places like the Fowler Museum and places like the National Museum of African Art. In many places in Europe, there have been significant legacies of the colonial relationship with Africa. They haven’t relinquished some of the more anthropological approaches to their collections as quickly as they have here.

So there is that subtle difference that I think the drive is to give the work its own voice rather than see it as a frame through which to understand our relationship with Africa. I think it’s absolutely critical that we do because I think otherwise we only ever instrumentalize the work if we only ever see it as being part of a colonial story, that we’re never actually going to get to its art history.

I think that something that we need to give people, is to not always encumber people with the histories of colonialism and enslavement. Rather, sometimes to give the right to look at the objects as they were created. That can be an enormous blessing. We must never forget those other histories, but sometimes one does want to have the operators to really begin to understand why these things are important in terms of their use and their beauty.

Most of us are familiar with the fictional portrayal of African empires from the movie Black Panther and how it sparked a movement. What other sources conveying African histories would you recommend that can appeal to the contemporary culture?

The Black Panther is a fictional thing, but what it does very powerfully, is to speak to the thirst that people have for their history and also speak to the pretty much systematic way in which people have actually built barriers around the access to that history. I think that was something really important because it did unlock, for a lot of people, both the sense that the history must be there and also that you can go and find it. There are means to do so.

We have great facilities. Here on the West Coast, there’s the Fowler Museum. On the East Coast, we have the National Museum of African Art. Across this nation, there is a huge amount of resources that one can tap into for one who wants to learn more about African history, but you can also go online and discover it.

But today, I think it’s not beyond the realm of possibility for us to also think about traveling there ourselves. It’s not ridiculously expensive, and that it could be hugely transformative of someone who was open to doing that. The part of the story that is now increasingly being told is of people in the medieval period prepared to travel 6,000 miles to open up their minds. Maybe today with all of the conveniences of travel, we should indulge ourselves a little and actually try to seek some of the amazing narratives and possibilities of African history firsthand.

You can read our live tweets from the event here.