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.
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.