Up close and personal with Arike Oke, BCA's Managing Director

It’s been almost a month since new Managing Director, Arike Oke, joined Black Cultural Archives. We sat down with her to not only talk shop but get to know BCA’s new visionary.

Tell us a bit about yourself

My dad’s Yoruba, my mum’s white-English. I grew up in both Bauchi and Hull as a child: polar opposites in many ways. When we came back to school in Hull I remember my big sister convincing our school mates that we had a pet lion back in Nigeria. I was too wrapped up in voraciously reading books to get into trouble, but growing up both working class and across traditions gave me a strong sense of social justice and a passion for finding identity through history.

I’ve had a few jobs, from cucumber picking to registrar of births, deaths and marriages, but my first heritage job was as a positive action trainee archivist on the seminal Connecting Histories project in Birmingham. That project opened my eyes to the power that archives have to make a difference. Later, leading Rambert’s archive out of the wilderness to national prominence helped me see that a strong vision, leadership and collaboration is the formula for success.

Do your names have a meaning and do you think they're reflective of you?

I have both my grandma’s names. I use my third forename, Arike, which is a praise name. It doesn’t have a direct translation into English, but is somewhere in between ‘the pampered one’ and ‘the person you should cherish on sight’. Given those translations, I think I probably shouldn’t comment on whether they’re reflective of me!

Which book, song or film reflects your favourite portrayal of Black British culture?

I read a lot, all the time. It’s hard to choose a favourite portrayal of Black British culture, the great books I’ve read this year by Irenosen Okojie and Simi Bedford have already such different portrayals of our experience.

The most affecting book I read recently coming from the contemporary Black British experience was Stormzy’s. I was incredibly impressed at the team approach to writing it, to exposing how the music industry works, and how clear-eyed Team Merky’s ambitions are. It is a work of collaboration and celebration whose ambition sings from each page. A really good, and inspiring, read.

 What's the best way to start the day?

I am not a morning person, but I’ve started doing yoga in the mornings, just free YouTube videos, before heading out. This way my mind is already open and awake before I get to work. 

What inspires you to do better?

Working in heritage for so long I’ve learned about the stories of people who have overcome obstacles. From big names like Dr Martin Luther King to lesser known people such as anonymous transwoman whose collection I acquired for Wellcome Collection, I find inspiration in real people who have pushed through, pulled together and kept their integrity intact. I recently met Baroness Amos, who features in BCA’s current exhibition, Radiating Greatness. She was kind and open, and disarmingly humble despite everything she’s achieved and seen. She made doing your best for others, and succeeding, feel both in reach and natural.

Where's the farthest you've ever been from home?

The first time I visited America I remember looking out of the plane window as land passed below us. Maybe it was Greenland. It was a strange experience: growing up I had flown over Europe and Africa numerous times, but I’d always felt a connection to the land and sea beneath me. Flying over the volcanic landscape I felt as though I were flying over another planet. I was nervous to visit Atlanta alone a few years ago, but when I arrived in the city itself I was amazed. I have never been so far away but felt so at home.

What are your hopes for BCA?

BCA is the home of Black British history, a beacon and a promise. We have got this far, we’ve got our building, we’ve got our foundational collections. Now it’s time to establish our voice and to return to our founding purpose. We can correct the omissions and erasures in British history. We can make sure that Black British people have a voice in the national agenda. We can support new and emerging talent. We can be part of the community, as a platform and collaborator.

What are you looking forward to over the coming months at BCA?

Over the next few months I’ll be getting my head down to stabilise BCA’s finances and partnerships. We are assembling a cracking team around the BCA, and I’m looking forward to working with them, to meeting, listening to, and working with BCA’s family, supporters and communities, and to opening the windows and doors to let the fresh air of creativity back into the building.

How would you like to engage with the community in and around BCA?

I want there to be conversations, not just hearing but listening to the community’s ideas, hopes and priorities. BCA is more than the headquarters at Windrush Square, but the building should become an asset for the community too. How we achieve that at the same time as making the building work to support BCA’s core mission and funding needs will take trial and error, mutual understanding, patience and creativity.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

In the words of Queen Nina Simone, ‘There's no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were’. We have a responsibility to the present and to the future, let’s face it together.

Black Cultural Archives