West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

A kind friend gave me a complimentary ticket to see the British Library West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition recently. I had been thinking of going at some point but am never sure of these paying exhibitions, so the complimentary ticket (in return for renewing a readers’ ticket) solved my dilemma. I understand the logic behind charging for such exhibitions but am not sure that this is the way to get engagement. Having seen the exhibition which was well thought through and wide-ranging, I’m still undecided about the value of paying to see the items. That discussion is for another time…

Music dominated the venue – in sound and instrument. Koras and talking drums on display with recordings and of course, a whole corner dedicated to Fela Kuti. West Africa’s influence on music outside of the area was demonstrated through ‘slave’ songs and London’s Nottinghill Carnival – a veritable cacophany of sound.

Liturature was another dominant theme – West Africa has produced a raft of authors well-known in the English-speaking world; probably more so than any other African region. Not least was the recent 2015 Bailey of Bailey’s winners Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka – the first African Nobel Prize winner for Literature (1986) – and numerous others. Many had been political agitators (commentators?) experiencing first hand the Biafra War and other independendence struggles. Other texts included the start of dictionaries as missionaries in particlar attempted to put oral traditions on paper and to translate the Bible.

Not to be forgotten was the collection of cloth. Outfits for special occasions but closer to my heart, the everyday 2-piece. I knew they contained special messages but hadn’t quite realised the extent to which they did.

A touch I really liked was the opportunity to curl up with a book at the end. For those uninitiated to African writing, this provided an ideal opportunity to explore a range of styles and authors – young and old. Alas, there was no-one there when I left. I couldn’t stay as I had an appointment upstairs with some books on Ruanda-Urundi and Muslim involvement in WW1 East Africa.

My whirlwind tour through the ages of West African history was rather uplifting and the team under Marion Wallace have (@MarionWallace18 ) done a superb job in bringing this exhibition together. It exceded my expectations and was a welcome break from the bleak grey world outside.

Something which didn’t make it into the exhibition but definitely worth mentioning is the recently completed project on photographs and facial recognition – part of the British Library’s Endangered Archive Project (@bl_eap): a most valuable project!!

PS: Neither did I see anything on World War 1 – a pity given some of the books and manuscripts (including Endangered Archives) in the British Library. Perhaps these were purposefully kept out in anticipation of another African exhibition (Africa’s contribution to the development of the non-African world). I live in hope…


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