No stone is left unturned in the British Library’s latest exhibition; West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. This long awaited collection leaves very little to the imagination and no room for previously held misconceptions about West Africa. It approaches the complex history of the 17 countries that inhabit it with a detailed delicacy not often seen when dealing with histories that include colonisation and slavery.
Yet this exhibition by no means favours only one subject. It gives equal weight as far as possible, to many realms of the colourful and vibrant histories of the largest nations (Nigeria, Ghana, Mali and Senegal) by separating the collection into Building States, Spirit, Crossings, Speaking Out and Story Now. The result of this layout introduces visitors to the beginnings of West Africa; from the 9th to 15th Centuries when nations like the Gold Coast (Ghana) were swimming in wealth and trade, to the creative storytelling surrounding the formation of new nations like Mali.
From there visitors are entrenched into religion and culture (the journey from spirituality to Christianity and Islam), colonialism and slavery (including the European depiction of West Africans), and rebellion and freedom (using education and political independence) all through word, symbol and song. Nothing about it is inauthentic or biased, only historically factual and rich in content. Not least of which is a section dedicated to 20th century Afrobeats pioneer, musician and human rights activist Fela Kuti; the Nigerian native known worldwide for using music as a tool for political change from 1958 until his death in 1997.
The intricate blueprint of the exhibition means that you do not miss a thing, but you can if you want to. In fact, the choice of learning by reading, listening or simply taking it all in at once, is completely yours. The walls are adorned with various patterns, their meanings, and the nations they belong to; you can grab headphones and listen to the chanting of Ifá priests (a two thousand year old religious practice originating in Nigeria), or you can closely study historical texts, like a Bible translated into Arabic in 1811, which was used as a tool for 19th century missionaries.
The literature and artistry of West Africa leaves prints across the whole exhibition, and the last section, Story Now, takes an in-depth look at 21st Century national treasures like Nigerian-Born Wole Soyinka who is a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and playwright; the growing political and feminist movement of West African female writers and artists, and the $3billion movie industry of Nigerian films, or ‘Nollywood’ as it’s fondly known.
This is an exhibition that deserves your undivided attention as well as a few hours of your time. Information is not crammed into a small space so that you feel overloaded, but carefully laid out to be taken in at your leisure. It celebrates all the greatness of West Africa whilst still acknowledging the painful histories that make it what it is today. West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is a mighty feast of culture and history that everyone should indulge in.
West Africa: Word , Symbol, Song is open until 16th February 2016 at PACCAR Gallery, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB
[LEAD IMAGE: British Library]