Friday, 13 November 2015

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

A dizzying display of African history and culture from the middle ages to the present day at the British Library

Written by Steve Barfield
SteveBarfieldThis is undoubtedly the most ambitious exhibition to date at the British Library. I was dazzled, surprised and enthused by the sheer variety and richness of objects and materials in an almost overwhelming show celebrating a millennia of African history. Britain has strong cultural and emotional ties with West Africa – think of Nigeria and Ghana – and this future economic powerhouse is no less a part of Britain’s story than the Magna Carta.

There is no commonly accepted definition of West Africa, but as a category it speaks to tribal and cultural affinities and the processes of 19th-century European colonialism. Postindependence, national boundaries in the region tended to mirror those created earlier by Britain and France, rearranging previous tribal and cultural continuities. The exhibition represents 17 different countries, 340 million people and more than 1,000 languages, as well as rectifying the absurd view that neither language, history nor culture existed in Africa before Europeans (or earlier Arabs) arrived – think of the voiceless, suffering Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. Conrad, a critic of European imperialism, meant well to those suffering under colonialism’s yoke, but he also reinforced damaging stereotypes.

In truth it was always by words and symbols that Africans have built their cultures and societies. We see and hear the stories of mythic heroes – among them Sunjata (Mali) and Ozidi (Nigeria) – amid the symbols of great empires, such as Asante and Songhai. The Asante Kingdom continues today and enjoys the sort of processions and ceremonies that would rival those of the British monarchy.

Eighteenth-century European engravings show dumbfounded amazement at encountering the fabled Timbuktu, while the riches of religion and spirituality abound: rare footage of the dances of animist religions; the Sufi tradition of using Qur’anic inscriptions; recordings of hymns and translations of the Bible into the vernacular by Africans themselves. Formerly enslaved Africans, such as Olaudah Equiano, argued for an end to slavery, while 200 years later descendants argue for social justice in Africa.

Music and voice play a pivotal role in the exhibition, be it the tradition of talking drums or Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. The wealth of ethnographic material is balanced by contemporary work, seen in the region’s literary, musical and filmic outpourings of today, along with the spoken and sung oral cultures of the past. 

Until 16 February 2016 at The British Library, Euston Road, London NW1: 01937-546546,

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