Art and Culture · History

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song Review ***

Songhai village sketched by a European

Africa is the second largest continent on earth stretching from the southern shores of the Mediterranean to the Cape of Good Hope.  Today it comprises of 54 separate nations.  The cultures and the languages are the most diverse in the world.  Yet, it is often referred to as just Africa.  This reference to the African continent results in shrinking the vast land in our minds and reducing the peoples and their cultures to a homogenous mass with a single primitive history.  Empire and its notion of race supremacy have created this distorted view.  The British Library’s exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol and Song challenge both.  The exhibition brings into sharp contrast the ‘primitive savages’ narrative of Empire and the great civilisations of the West African peoples over 2,000 years.  Most importantly, the presentation does not suggest that a land mass, i.e., Africa has a history.  It focuses on 17 nations in West Africa.  It is a multimedia experience that is culturally intimate.  All credit for this rests with the co-curators Dr Marion Wallace (who walks us through the exhibition in the attached audio below) and Janet Topp Fargion.

Divided into five sections the exhibition explores the literature, symbols and music from the great African empires of the Middle Ages to the cultural dynamism of West Africa today.  It is a unique insight into a profound and engaging literary culture with centuries-old written heritage existing alongside ancient oral traditions.  Some of those traditions kept alive despite slavery.  So it fits that a model of a Trinidadian carnival queen reigns over the proceedings.

The exhibition begins with State Building and the Sunjata, a song that tells the tale of the great hero Sunjata who founded the Mali Kingdom circa A.D. 1240.  There was a video performance when I attended but there have also been live performances during the exhibition.  In this opening section, visitors are shown the empires of Ghana, the ancient city of Djenne-Djeno and others that existed in the Middle Ages.  Far from a wild place, the buildings show towns and cities.  We see images from Timbuktu, a place of great learning.

I was pleased to find recognition of the Griots spoken and sung art form being accepted as reliable historical source.  Some historians have rejected the oral histories of African nations as not being history at all.  Just myth passed down.  The exhibition identifies the specialist role of the Griot.  It was a lofty position and the preserve of the middle classes. The Griots were men of memory, who through their art passed down the sacred histories.  This form of living history is deeply rooted in many cultures in Africa and has long been unacknowledged.

The exhibition takes us on a journey that includes the spiritual, the slave trade and my other favourite “Speaking Out”.  In this section we hear the voices of the ordinary people, as well as the intellectuals and politicians, speaking out against colonialism, injustice and slavery.  It may surprise many to know that it was slaves who fought for their freedom. From slave uprisings to those who learnt English and to write engaging the literary world in their struggle for freedom from slavery and later colonialism.  In the Crossing section, the letters, pamphlets and poetry from black abolitionists including leaders like Phillis Wheatley and the philosopher Ottabah Cugaono are found.  In the same place, there is an ugly diagram of humans being packed like sardines into a slave ship.

Saddlebag Qur’an
Saddlebag Qur’an from the exhibition

There is also a taste of everyday life, such as a father writing to his son demanding the return of his overdue book in the strongest terms.  Those who owed money would know about it through symbolism, a part of everyday life.  For example, the use of Cowry Shells to tell the borrower money was owed or that somebody was a good friend or not if the money was unpaid.  There are many wonders in this exhibition and there is something for everyone.  Music from the Great Fela Kuti and Hymns from his grandfather, Canon Josiah Jesse Ransome Kuti.  Novels, pamphlets, plays, poetry, religion, words, and the symbolism found in fabrics and things.  Symbols that are emulated around the world.  Like the histories of the people, it is also a performance exhibition so listening to the spoken word and musical performances on the headphones is an essential part of the show.  From the spoken to the written word West Africa was any but primitive.

I would have welcomed more exhibits or even a section on women. There is some work on display such as the articles of Mable Dove Danquah. Notwithstanding, this is an important exhibition if we are ever to understand how Empire has distorted history and work toward a real equality. It’s a must see, that deserves a few hours of your time but hurry because it closes on 16th February 2016.Notwithstanding, this is an important exhibition if we are ever to understand how Empire has distorted history and work toward a real equality.  It’s a must see, that deserves a few hours of your time but hurry because it closes on 16th February 2016.

Images courtsey of the British Library

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