Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

West Africa: Word, symbol, song

Cloth commemorating Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist and professor Cloth commemorating Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist and professor British Library
16 Oct
2015
The British Library presents West Africa as you should have seen it before

Through the themes of literature, art and music, the British Library's latest exhibition explores a thousand years of West African creativity. From its ancient manuscripts, through colonialism and independence, to contemporary ‘Twitter poets’ and Nollywood – Nigeria’s answer to Hollywood – the exhibition successfully emphasises West Africa’s rich intellectual history. The result is a refreshingly new understanding of the region outside of its stagnant cliches and generalisations, which Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, exhibition advisor and cultural historian, describes as being ‘long overdue’.

‘This is a region of both deep artistic sophistication and intense academic accomplishment,’ he says, ‘and this is a chance to follow its development across a thrilling millennium of achievement.’

Of particular mention is how the exhibition addresses the colonial era. For almost a century, European colonial powers dominated West Africa (with the exception of Liberia) until 1957, when Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country to achieve independence. Over just the next 15 years, the rest of West Africa’s countries became independent nations. While most histories rightfully focus on the oppression, suffering and political tension caused by the colonial regimes, they often forget the vital protest movements that brought about West African autonomy. Independence was borne of a culture of resistance, satire and prose.

fela
A room dedicated to the records of Fela Kuti, political dissident and musician from Nigeria (Image: British Library)

Janet Topp Fargion, the exhibition’s curator, tells Geographical ‘what we have tried to do is not shy away from those moments of history brought out resistance and struggle. We’ve tried to underscore the creative results from those periods and the way that West Africans did not just sit back and accept the status quo.’

Crucially, the exhibition boasts the philosophic writings of Kwame Nkrumah, first prime minister of Ghana, the articles of Mable Dove Danquah, political journalist who was the first woman to be elected to a member of any African assembly, and textiles and writings dedicated to Chinua Achebe, the novelist and professor best known for his incendiary novel Things Fall Apart.

Though they were educated in English institutions, Topp Fargion contends that it was these intellectuals’ understanding of Western ideals that allowed them to overturn them in their motherlands. ‘A lot of the first presidents of West African countries came to Europe to study, however, they went back to West Africa. They harnessed Western communication and combined these with many means of West African communication in order to challenge that colonial regime. That process of combination is to the credit of West African creativity.’

In a region that includes 17 countries and over 1,000 languages, finding a common narrative for the exhibition was probably no easy task. However, with West Africa: Word, Symbol and Song the British Library brings the fundamental stories of the region to the fore. Hopefully they will stay there.

The West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition is at the British Library and runs until 16 February 2016.  Adults £10, Over 60s £8, other concessions £5, Under 18s free and Friends of the British Library go free. For more information, visit http://www.bl.uk/events/west-africa-word-symbol-song

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Natural Capital: Putting a price on nature
    Natural capital is a way to quantify the value of the world that nature provides for us – the air, soils, water, even recreational activity. Advocat...
    The human game – tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    Alien views
    The tabloids would have us believe that immigrants are taking our houses, our jobs, our school places and our hospital beds. But a close reading of th...
    REDD+ or dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...

Films

One man’s recreation of an epic 1930s survival experience deep…

Books

by Tom Harper • The British Library • £30 (hardback)

Books

by Susan Schulten • The British Library • £30 (hardback)

Books

by Ben & Marina Fogle • William Collins • £20 (hardback/eBook)

Books

by Tim Flannery • Allen Lane • £25 (hardback)

Books

by Keith Wilson • £40 (hardback)

Books

by Gaston Dorren • Profile Books • £14.99 (hardback)

Books

by William A. Ewing and Holly Roussell • Thames and…

Books

by Ben Coates • Nicholas Brealey Publishing • £12.99 (paperback)

Books

by Nicholas Crane • Weidenfeld & Nicolson • £12.99 (hardback)

Books

by Mary Robinson • Bloomsbury • £16.99 (hardback)

Books

by Pieter van der Merwe and Jeremy Michell • Bloomsbury • £18.99…

Books

by Simon Reeve • Hodder & Stoughton • £20 (hardback)

Books

by Michael Palin • Hutchinson • £20 (hardback/eBook)

Films

Powerful expedition film, screened at the 2018 Adventure Uncovered Film…

Books

by Laura Locker and Julia Scheele • Icon Books • £12.99 (paperback)

Books

by Patrick Nunn • Bloomsbury • £16.99 (hardback) • £14.99 (eBook)

Books

by Oliver Bullough • Profile Books • £20 (hardback) • £14.99 (eBook)

Books

by Thomas Reinertsen Berg • Hodder & Stoughton • £25 (hardback)