Coming to Lagos. Digital edition of British Library’s West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at Ake Arts and Book Festival

Cloth commemorating Chinua Achebe on display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. Nigeria, c.2013. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Highlights from the British Library’s major exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, will feature in a new digital edition of the exhibition to open in Lagos later this month.

The display is the result of a ground-breaking partnership between the Ake Arts and Book Festival and the British Library, and will offer audiences in Nigeria sounds and images to transport them into West Africa’s rich and diverse literary, artistic and musical heritage.  

Held in 2015-16 at the British Library in London, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song was hailed as a ‘landmark exhibition’ which ‘exploded the myth of the dark continent’ (Nigerian Watch). The exhibition focused on how, for centuries, West African writers, scholars and musicians have used the power of words to build societies, engage in politics, communicate religious beliefs, fight injustice and enslavement, and create art.

Digital highlights and the unforgettable sounds from that exhibition are to feature at the Ake Arts and Book Festival 2018, which takes place from 25-28 October 2018, at Radisson Blu Hotel, (2nd Floor) Isaac John Street, Ikeja, in Lagos.

Visitors will explore the Memory Room to experience the history and complexity of writing, symbolic communication and oral literatures in West Africa and its diaspora. It will feature recordings from the British Library’s sound collections, including Fela Kuti’s grandfather and an Ifá text sung by 35 babalawo (priests of the Ifá oracle) in 1965.

Digital viewing points will present on-screen highlights from the British Library’s collections (and from other UK museums). There will be glimpses of West Africa’s Islamic manuscript heritage, and of remarkable historical writings by Africans like Samuel Johnson and Ignatius Sancho, and representations of the richness of graphic systems in West Africa.

British Library curator Marion Wallace said: “We are thrilled to be bringing this special digital edition of our West Africa: Word Symbol, Song exhibition to Lagos. The original exhibition attracted thousands of visitors and the most diverse audience we’ve ever had for a British Library exhibition. Through images, digitised collections and sound recordings we celebrate writing, literature and music from this hugely creative and dynamic region, grounding the story in a millennium of history.”

Lola Shoneyin, organiser of the Ake Arts and Book Festival said: “When I first saw the exhibition in 2015, I was so blown away that I made it my ambition to get those sounds and images back to the source – West Africa – so people back home could reconnect with their history. Pestering the British Library for two years paid off.  I have no doubt that the visitors at Ake Festival will find the exhibition enlightening but also very moving. That’s the effect it had on me.”


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Notes to Editors

The Ake Arts and Book Festival is a four-day programme of cultural and literature-focused events, which include book chats, panel discussions, workshops, poetry readings, film screenings, stage plays, film screenings, dance and exhibitions, featuring Nigerian and international speakers and performers. More info

For more information:

Ben Sanderson
The British Library
t: +44 (0)1937 546 126

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

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