A talk with historian Dr Gus Casely-Hayford

Art historian Dr Gus Casely-Hayford will visit Ghana in November to mark the centenary of the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

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The institution is staging a series of talks in Britain and further afield, to celebrate the 100-year academic reputation it has cultivated across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Gus is a London-born writer and broadcaster, who is best known for fronting BBC Four programme ‘Lost Kingdoms of Africa’. He told MisBeee in July he was one of a number of SOAS alumni chosen to participate in talks across different African countries as part of the anniversary. Gus will be visiting Accra and will talk about Ghana’s heritage during the visit, he said during a seminar at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Gus comes from a prominent family line hailing from Ghana and Sierra Leone. The list includes  his grandfather – lawyer, politician, pan-Africanist and journalist Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford – and brother British fashion designer Joe Casely-Hayford OBE.

Childhood stories

Gus has spent much of his career charting and exploring African history – a passion that was nurtured from stories his Ghanaian relatives told him as a child.
“…they would sit me down and tell me stories and it just fired something in me,” he said.

“I wanted to travel and I wanted to learn more about the history, so as soon as I got the opportunity, I travelled, wrote a PhD and began to investigate ways in which I could further my knowledge. The thing that really drove me was that I wanted to give other people the chance to learn about their history without them having to travel thousands of miles or to put in hundreds of hours of work. So that’s why I tried to write and make TV programmes – to try and bring them into people’s homes.”

Ensuring that a more balanced representation of African history is available in the UK’s national curriculum is something Gus advocates. “There is an attempt to do that,” he said, “but the teachers have to have the resources, they have to have the knowledge, they have to have the right books and they have to have the motivation. Not many of them have all of those things together, so we need to find ways of making it easier for them to do that.”

Authenticity in films

Of course, the body of work that comes from the ‘Lost Kingdoms of Africa’ series is one that schools can naturally take advantage of and Gus welcomes this – as long as it is connected to education.

“I think it is fantastic particularly for a young generation many of whom feel very dislocated from the history of their own ancestry,” he said.

Re-telling African stories through film is another route that Gus applauds. While he agrees that there is a need for Black directors and producers to be authentic when telling these stories, Gus also believes these storytellers should be afforded some artistic licence and have the space to share more uplifting African narratives.

“.. whilst accuracy is absolutely important, it is important that we don’t terrify people into thinking that our history was nothing but appalling,” he said. “There are some fantastic chapters of African history that are deeply uplifting and those are the ones that I’d love to see young people given access to because if we want them to feel inspired by the past, we can’t just overload them with what are, of course, important but the terrible things. It is good that they know those but I think alongside them we have to give them access to some of the really inspiring and positive stories.”

Positive feedback

The positive feedback Gus received following the airing of the ‘Lost Kingdoms of Africa’ series is testament to this idea of sharing positive images of Africans and their history. The programme, which was first aired in January 2010 and ran for two years, generated positive feedback from Africans both home and abroad. The programme was shown in English-speaking African countries and was translated into French for the francophone market, as well as being available on the BBC World Service, Gus said.

Gus continues to champion learning and is currently working on a series for TV company Sky that will tell the story of British landscape art.  He is also curating an exhibition for the National Portrait Gallery that opens in 2022. “The exhibition is going to bring all of the great portraits of Black figures from the 18th century, painted by some of the most important artists, and bringing them together for the very first time into one space,” he said.

For more on Gus’s work, check him out launching the ‘West Africa Word, Symbol, Song‘ exhibition at the British Library in October 2015. For those of you who missed out on the event, here are my thoughts. And if you’ve never seen the ‘Lost Kingdoms of Africa’, here is a clip.

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