West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

west africa, fela kuti
  • A major exhibition at the British Library from 16 October 2015 – 16 February 2016
  • Celebrating the cultural dynamism of West Africa, from early symbolic scripts and illuminated manuscripts, to the writings of Wole Soyinka and the music of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti
  • The first exhibition to showcase the British Library’s vast African collections, from an exquisite Saddlebag Qur'an to political pamphlets and early sound recordings of ‘talking drums’ 
From the great manuscript libraries of the early Middle Ages, through to colonialism and independence right up to the writers and artists working in the present day, West Africa has a powerful literary, artistic and musical heritage.

West Africa: Word, Symbol , Song, a major new exhibition opening at the British Library this week, will trace a thousand years of this history, drawing on over 200 stunning manuscripts, books, sound and film recordings as well as artworks, masks and colourful textiles from the British Library’s vast African collections and beyond.

From centuries-old drum language, to protest songs, to illuminated religious manuscripts and a range of objects and textiles indicating proverbs and symbolic meanings, the exhibition will offer an insight into the centuries-old written heritage, as well as the ancient oral traditions of West Africa, both of which continue to influence and inspire in the present day.   

Told through unique texts, recordings and manuscripts of the time, West Africa: Word, Symbol , Song will explore how key figures in West African history have harnessed the power of words to build societies, drive change and fight injustice, from the Nobel prize-winning Nigerian author Professor Wole Soyinka, to the creator of Afrobeat and human rights activist Fela Kuti, to a generation of enslaved West Africans who agitated for the abolition of the slave trade in the 18th century.

Key items on display in the exhibition will be:

  • A room dedicated to the music and activism of Fela Kuti, including a letter written by Kuti to the then president of Nigeria, General Ibrahim Babangida in 1989, agitating for political change
  • Ghanaian brass weights used to weigh gold dust, an exquisite brass decorative box, and a range of ‘fancy print’ cloths, all used to carry messages, proverbs and symbolic meanings
  • A pair of atumpan ‘talking drums’ akin to those still used in Ghana today, and a musical instrument from The Gambia called the akonting, thought to be a predecessor of the banjo
  • Letters, texts and life accounts written by Olaudah Equiano, the most famous 18th century British writer of African heritage, the enslaved and freed scholar Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, Ignatius Sancho, who was born on a slave ship and went on to become an influential  intellectual figure, and Phillis Wheatley, who was enslaved as a child and went on to write Romantic poetry
  • A striking carnival costume newly designed by Brixton-based artist Ray Mahabir, based on the tradition of Bele, a drum dance and song closely linked to Caribbean history, struggle, freedom and celebration
  • Textiles and music dedicated to Chinua Achebe, and an annotated typewritten script by the Nobel prize-winning author  Wole Soyinka, alongside works by new writers including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,and Sefi Atta

Marion Wallace, Curator of African Collections and Janet Topp Fargion, Curator of World and Traditional Music, who co-curated the exhibition, commented:

“Africa is often thought of as the continent of the voice, dominated by oral history and traditions. With the British Library’s West Africa: Word Symbol, Song exhibition, we want to expand this view and celebrate the writing, literature and music from this hugely creative and dynamic region, grounding the story in a millennium of history and bringing it right up to the present.

We have consulted many sources to develop this exhibition, from the British Library’s own exceptional collections relating to Africa, to the voices of a broad range of people with expertise in and links to West Africa and the Caribbean, and we look forward to welcoming visitors to the Library this Autumn to discover this fascinating story for themselves.”

Dr Gus Casely-Hayford, exhibition advisor, said:

“This important exhibition exploring West African intellectual tradition is like a breath of fresh air, a long overdue chance to at last see the continent's achievements clearly, free of ethnographic weight, given coherence through simple chronology and love of the subject. In West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song the British Library offers us an insight into some of the most exquisitely beautiful and intellectually ambitious cultures the world has known. This is a region of both deep artistic sophistication and intense academic accomplishment - and this is a chance to follow its development across a thrilling millennium of achievement.”

The exhibition will be accompanied by a major series of talks, events and performances, including:

  • A ‘Late at the Library: Felebration’ event celebrating the music of Fela Kuti, ‘Art and Afrobeat’ with Lemi Ghariokwu, the Nigerian artist and graphic designer renowned for creating the artwork for Fela Kuti’s classic albums, and a screening of ‘Finding Fela’, a documentary of the life of Fela Kuti
  • A season of contemporary and classic West African cinema, in partnership with Film Africa
  • A special MOBO edition of the Library’s ‘Inspiring Entrepreneurs’ season featuring Kanya King, CEO and founder of MOBO, June Sarpong, Levi Roots and designer Yinka Ilori
  • An African Market and Discovery Day of hands-on workshops, demonstrations, stalls and performances for families
  • A programme for schools, families and community will run throughout the exhibition, including a special lecture series for A Level English students featuring young authors of West African descent: author Chibundu Onuzo, lyricist Aina More and the poet Inua Ellams


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Notes to Editors


Adult standard: £10

Over 60s: £8

Other concessions: £5

Under 18s: Free

Friends of the British Library: Free

Up to 50% off for groups of six or more

Book now at www.bl.uk/west-africa-exhibition

Dr Gus Casely-Hayford is a cultural historian, curator and broadcaster with a particular interest in Africa. He was the instigator and director of ‘Africa 05’, a season of more than a thousand Africa-related events hosted by more than 150 organisations. He has written widely on African history, and his book Lost Kingdoms of Africa was supported by two series of BBC programmes. He is currently working towards an exhibition that will explore portraiture through the lens of slavery and its abolition for the National Portrait Gallery. He lectures widely, being a trustee at the National Portrait Gallery, a member of the African Studies Association of the UK board and on the Caine Prize Council; he is a research associate at the Centre for African Studies, SOAS.

West Africa learning programme

Exhibition workshops are available for Primary schools, Secondary schools and Further Education colleges

A special lecture series for A Level English students will young authors of West African descent Chibundu Onuzo, lyricist Aina More and the poet Inua Ellams.  

For teachers, playwright Ade Solanke joins us as guest speaker at our Primary Teachers’ Private View on 5 November. On 24 November, we’re partnering with the Guardian for our annual Reading for Pleasure conference with talks from authors Stephen Kelman and Chibundu Onuzo.

In November we’re also running two special events for young people: a student conference in partnership with the Widening Participation team at SOAS and a film screening in association with the Into Film Festival.

A free family trail packed with creative activities will be available in the exhibition for families to enjoy. Family events include Speaking in Symbols on 17 October with writer Jacob Sam-La Rose and The African Market and Discovery Day on 5 December. Later this year, we’re teaming up with Chocolate Films on a community project which will use storytelling, sound, music and filmmaking, to create a film inspired by the exhibition


The exhibition will be accompanied by a bespoke West Africa Shop which will sell everything from stationery to homewares and accessories.  It features fantastic designer-makers based in the UK who are heavily influenced by their West African roots. You can view the range in our London store and online athttp://shop.bl.uk/


The accompanying book to the exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, edited by Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace is on sale now.


For more information:

Sophie McIvor
The British Library
t: +44 (0)20 7412 7790
e: sophie.mcivor@bl.uk

Evenings and weekends:
+44 (0) 20 7412 7150

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