15 October 2015
West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song
The British Library’s major autumn exhibition, ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’, opens to the public on Friday 16 October. The exhibition showcases writing, literature and music from this hugely creative and dynamic region, grounding the story in a millennium of history and bringing it right up to the present.
Africa is often thought of as the continent of the voice, with a literature, or rather orature, dominated by oral history and traditions. One of our concerns in curating this exhibition is to show a different picture, bringing to light histories of writing and scholarship that go back at least 1,500 years in West Africa. The manuscript cultures rooted in Islam, for example, date back at least to the 11th century, and flourished right across the region, from Mauritania in the north-west to Nigeria and Cameroon in the south-east. West Africa also has a very rich tradition of graphic and other symbolic systems such as adinkra (Ghana) and nsibidi (Nigeria).
Postcard showing a griot (musician and story-teller) with his kora (calabash harp). It was taken by Edmond Fortier, a French photographer active in Senegal in the early part of the 20th century
Courtesy of Daniela Moreau/Acervo África/São Paulo-Brazil. Digitisation by Jorge Bastos
At the same time, it’s important that orature is not seen as somehow secondary to written literature, to be replaced in the inevitable march of progress. The exhibition, in which visitors can hear and see numerous sound and film recordings, demonstrates some of the complexity and sophistication of an oral literature composed across many genres, which has ancient roots and still flourishes today.
The exhibition is packed with over two hundred beautiful, remarkable and sometimes surprising objects. They include books, manuscripts and sound and film recordings as well as artworks, masks and colourful textiles. We start with a glimpse of the history of the last millennium, and go on to show something of the different religious traditions of the region and the literatures they have produced. Sections on more recent history – the transatlantic slave trade and the colonial and post-colonial periods – look at how West Africans have used literature, and culture more broadly, to both resist and reflect upon historical circumstance. The exhibition finishes with post-independence literature and story-telling, concluding with a poem released on Twitter by Ben Okri.
Printed cloth with portrait of Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001), president of Senegal, poet and intellectual
Collet collection, 1975
We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for the original print designer of the Senghor cloth. Please contact [email protected] with any information you have regarding this item
‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ has been in the making for four years, and has been curated by Dr Marion Wallace (Lead Curator, African Collections) and Dr Janet Topp Fargion (Lead Curator, World and Traditional Music), advised by Dr Gus Casely-Hayford (SOAS and King’s College London). We have consulted very widely with people with expertise in and links to West Africa and the Caribbean, and for the last year we have been working with an Advisory Panel.
As the exhibition launches, it’s accompanied by a programme of fascinating and fun events including musical performances, films, talks and debates. On Friday 16 October, a Felabration marks the birthday of the late Nigerian singer and activist Fela Kuti. The Felabration is fully booked but is being streamed live.
Gold-weight from Ghana in the form of a Sankofa bird – a bird looking backwards. This is a popular symbol in Ghana, indicating the importance of history and of learning from the past. Gold-weights, made of brass, were used for weighing gold dust
Copyright and item held by British Museum
The exhibition is ideal for families as well as adults – children under 18 go free and you can pick up a family trail leaflet on arrival – and there is an extensive Learning programme for schools. Concessions include a generous group rate – £5 per person for groups of six or more. For more details please go to our booking page.
‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ offers a visual and aural feast at the same time as revealing many little-known stories of the people of West Africa. It runs from 16 October 2015 to 16 February 2016.
For more on ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ go to our exhibition web pages. An accompanying book West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song by Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace is available in our bookshop.