From Timbuktu to Trinidad

A giant Calypso queen called Belle looms regally over the British Library’s new show West Africa: Word, Symbol and Song. Below her, David Rudder’s Notting Hill Carnival classic Calypso Music pumps out of speakers, and footage from carnivals past can transport you back to the Portobello Road in 1993.

The exhibition celebrates the incredible complexity and diversity of West Africa’s heritage, while never side-stepping the more thorny issues of rebellion, protest and the transatlantic slave trade.

As chief curator of the African Collections Marion Wallace concedes, selecting what to include in a show that spans 2,000 years, 1,000 languages and 17 different countries (from Mauritania to Cameroon) was a massive task. “We got it down to themes and storylines,” she says. “We didn’t want an exhibition where you would just look at a book – we wanted a multi-dimensional experience”. The decision to limit the scope to West Africa was taken after many months, when it was acknowledged that there was simply too much material to explore the whole continent. Central, East and Sub-Saharan Africa shows will follow.

Divided into five sections, the show is unflinching, funny and a labour of impressive research. It involves collaborations with South London drumming groups, New York academics, West African lorry drivers, Nigerian scholars and community organisations. It gives a way to thread people, ideas and objects together – and explores African history from a non-institutional perspective.

The earliest item on show is a European engraving of Benin society from 1628, showing a reference for the social structures there – a far cry from the stereotypical “barbarous natives” narrative. There is also evidence of eleventh century writing, poetry and manuscripts from Egypt to Ethiopia, as well as a late 18th or early 19th century “saddlebag qu’ran” which was designed for reading on hoof, or camel.

Gus Casely-Hayford, chair of the advisory panel for the show, says: “Most would accept that the history of African literature and oral tradition … has lain unacknowledged and underappreciated for too long. It has been unjustifiably overlooked, and accomplishments of its key figures have been … obscured by a long history of misunderstandings, misconceptions and prejudice.”

koran saddlebag



There is a non-descript but galling diagram from the 18th century that outlines the ‘best’ way to cram slaves into the hold of a ship, meticulously illustrated with men and women lying top to toe. This is accompanied by original pamphlets, poetry, letters and even classical music scores by leading African abolitionists. (Phyllis Wheatley, Ignatious Sancho, Ottabah Cuguano).

There are some real surprises: for example, that Tuareg rebels didn’t destroy most of the famous Timbuktu manuscripts, as is often assumed. Actually, local people stashed many of them away or smuggled them out and they remain in Mali as part of the endangered archives project, run by the British Library. There are many similar manuscripts, in the exhibition, and thousands still across the continent from Mauritania to Cameroon.

Elsewhere, recordings of Christian hymns into Yoruba by Fela Kuti’s grandfather Josiah in 1922 complicate the story of white imperialism. And just around the corner, his grandson is brought to life in the film Finding Fela. The music, and a selection of fabulous record sleeves, reveal him as a polymath: the founder of Afro-beat, a radical, conscious activist, a musician. The show’s co-curator, Janet Topp Fargion, says: “Everywhere we went, people said you must include Fela Kuti! You just must!”

Some of the smallest items are the most powerful. There is an angry letter written in Arabic – “Give me back my book!” – from the 19th century. A poem from the 17th century female Islamic scholar Nana Asma’u, which proves women’s active public role in Islam.

In the section of the exhibition called ‘Speaking out: dissent and creativity in the colonial era and beyond’ are pamphlets, posters, novels and newspaper cuttings that bring to life the vibrancy and urgency of the post-colonial independence movements. As reading and writing became political tools of popular movements, colourful cloth printed with Senegal’s President Senghor’s face shows how the message went viral. Subtle digs at British intellectual snobbery, with Ghanaian MP and Journalist Mabel Dove’s parody of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search For God’ shows the colony cleverly answering back. Where George Bernard Shaw is happy to critique the British colonial administration for outdated racism, it is Mabel Dove who shows his portrayal of African women is old-fashioned and ridiculous, and her ‘African woman’ is sporting a tennis racket and criticising the church.

Proverbs, novels, pamphlets, plays, music, poetry, religious writing, words stamped on to taxis and mammy wagons – Africa is bursting with words, wordplay, riddles and scholarly study. As Casely-Hayford says: “This is a region of deep artistic sophistication – and this is a chance to follow it across a thrilling millennium of achievement.”



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