Marion Wallace introduces a major new exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library which 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).

Illuminated loose leaf Qur’an, carried in its leather bag. The Qur’an is typical of those of an area including northern Nigeria and southern Niger British Library Or.16751 Late 18th/early 19th century noc

Illuminated loose leaf Qur’an, carried in its leather bag. The Qur’an is typical of those of an area including northern Nigeria and southern Niger Late 18th/early 19th century
Credit: British Library

At the same time, it is 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.

WEst-Africa_BL2

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 c. 1904 Courtesy of Daniela Moreau/Acervo África/São Paulo-Brazil. Digitisation by Jorge Bastos

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 copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item

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 copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item

The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of fascinating and fun events including musical performances, films, talks and debates.

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 18th-20th century Copyright and item held by British Museum

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
18th-20th century
Copyright and item held by British Museum

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.

 

This article was first published on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog.

 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is 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). It runs from until 16 February 2016. Follow this link to book tickets.

 

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.