Passing through London on our way back from the David Jones show in Chichester, I decided to take a look at the current exhibition at the British Library: West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. It’s an ambitious survey of literature, art and music from the great African empires of the Middle Ages to expressions of rapid cultural and political change across West Africa in recent decades.A vast region rich in culture and history, West Africa today comprises 17 nations with a population of more than 340 million people speaking over a thousand distinct languages. Somehow the exhibition manages to encompass it all with exhibits ranging from Nigeria and Benin to Mali and Senegal that focus on aspects of culture shared across the region, both in history and in the present.

Although many of the exhibits are drawn from the British Library archives, this is truly a multimedia experience, with music, proverbs, novels, pamphlets, drama, poetry, religious writing, maps and photography featured alongside historical documents. You could spend hours – days, weeks even – delving deep into the myriad pathways that open up in this superb and engrossing exhibition.

Or, if you prefer, you could simply move from one listening post to another, don headphones, and listen to music from all eras, and of all styles. For example, I sat for a while listening to a playlist of songs of ‘Women singers speaking out’ that featured  Rokia Traore, Angelique Kidjo, Fatoumata Diawara and Oumou Sangare – all tackling issues concerning the place of women in West African society.

For some idea of the range of themes and variety of media in this exhibition, go to the website of the Royal African Society where they have compiled a West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song Top Ten.

The exhibition is divided into five sections. In ‘Building States’, we see how many types of societies have existed across the region in the last millennium – from settled agrarian communities and nomadic kingdoms to the great empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai that flourished at the same time as the European Middle Ages. Exhibits reveal how stories and symbols have bound people together: the epics of great heroes such as Sunjata in Mali or Ozidi in Nigeria who came to be regarded as founders of their states.

Thomas Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, 1819, part of Adoom street
Thomas Edward Bowdich, ‘Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee,’ 1819, part of Adoom street
Thomas Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, 1819, The first day of the Yam Festival
Thomas Edward Bowdich, ‘Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee’, 1819, The first day of the Yam Festival

Many of the documentary exhibits from the 19th century or earlier are books written by Europeans – explorers, military men, colonial administrators and the like – and, as you might expect, usually reflecting their own prejudices and certainty of European superiority. However, one observant and positive account is the lavishly-illustrated Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, produced by Thomas Edward Bowdich in 1819 which records his visit to the Asante kingdom (modern Ghana) in 1816 while representing Britain in peace negotiations. His account accurately reflects the power of the Asante kingdom at its height, while the engravings provide a valuable record of street scenes and traditional festivals (such as the Yam Festival, above).

Benin city in the 17th century, Description de l'Afrique, Amsterdam, 1686
Benin city in the 17th century, Description de l’Afrique, Amsterdam, 1686
René Caillié, Journal d’un voyage à Temboctou et à Jenné, 1830
René Caillié, Journal d’un voyage à Temboctou et à Jenné, 1830

Similar items include a Dutch engraving of Benin city from 1686, and René Caillié was the first European to reach Timbuktu (in 1828) and return alive. This Atlas of engravings of the city and other scenes from his travels was published in 1830. Timbuktu, situated in present-day Mali, and formerly in the Mali empire, was one of West Africa’s most important cultural centres in the medieval and early modern periods.

Yoruba divination board
Yoruba divination board

The second section of the exhibition is entitled ‘Spirit’, and examines the wide variety of religious beliefs and practices that have emerged across West Africa -from the indigenous animist belief systems rooted in the worship of ancestors and spirits to Islam and Christianity, religion has been – and remains –  a powerful force across the region.

London’s Horniman Museum has lent several items from its anthropology collection, including an example of an Ifa divination board from Nigeria and a Gelede mask from Burkina Faso. Ifa is an old Yoruba tradition, still practised in rural areas, in which a priest acts as a medium between the human and spirit realms during rituals in which pulverised wood or yam flour is sprinkled onto the central area of the board while the priest taps rhythmically on it with a tapper to invoke the presence of the spirit of wisdom and prophecy.

Gelede mask from Burkina Faso
Gelede mask from Burkina Faso

Among the many ritual masks on display is this Gelede mask from Burkina Faso. In ritual Gelede spectacles male Yoruba dancers honour the women of the community, both living and dead, including the elderly women of the community and the ancestors of Yoruba society.

There are 30 million Yoruba people in West Africa. They live mainly in Nigeria, where they comprise 21% of the population. Today, 60% of the Yoruba are Christian and 30% are Muslim. However, many, especially in rural areas, still practise old Yoruba traditions such as Ifa.

A saddlebag Qur’an
A saddlebag Qur’an

An object which strikingly illustrates the importance of Islam is the region is this late 18th century saddlebag Qur’an – designed to be read while travelling. The manuscript is loose-leaf, designed to be kept in a leather bag, so that individual pages can be taken out and read – or lent out to be learned by heart. The item is typical of a wide area centred on the city-states of Hausaland and the Bornu Empire (today, northern Nigeria, southern Niger and Chad), where many West African manuscripts were produced. There are examples of the Bible, translated into various West African languages, with which 19th century Christian missionaries aimed to encourage conversion.

Weight in the shape of a two-headed crocodile, Ghana, 18th century
Weight in the shape of a two-headed crocodile, Ghana, 18th century

In the section called ‘Crossings’ the curators reveal how West Africa has always been connected to the wider world. For centuries, traders, pilgrims and travellers journeyed across the Sahara to and from North Africa and beyond. Representative of the once-lucrative trade in gold dust, there are examples of Ghanaian brass weights used to weigh gold dust, including one that takes the form of a two-headed crocodile, and a tiny set of scales used by travelling merchants in the same transactions.

A view of the new settlement in the river at Sierra Leone, London, 1790
‘A view of the new settlement in the river at Sierra Leone’, London, 1790

Of course, the most notorious example of the region’s connections to the wider world is the transatlantic slave trade, initiated by Europeans as far back as the 15th century. Over the next 400 years, more than 12 million Africans were enslaved and forcibly shipped to the Caribbean and North and South America.

Several items in the exhibition document this trade – and the many ways in which enslaved Africans found a way to resist and rebel. The print seen above illustrates the founding of the colony of Sierra Leone in 1787 to provide a home to Africans freed from enslavement. The first group of 400 settlers, most of whom died, came from England. In 1792 over 1,000 emigrants from Halifax, Nova Scotia, settled in the new colony. They were Black Loyalists, who had attained their freedom by fighting for the British during the American Revolution. This ‘perhaps romanticised’ print shows the Sierra Leone colony with a slave ship at anchor in the bay. It is probably based on a drawing by the abolitionist Carl Bernhard Wadstrom.

A qu’ran written by Ayuba Suleiman Diallo featuring his portrait, 1734
A qu’ran written by Ayuba Suleiman Diallo featuring his portrait, 1734

A small number of remarkable Africans caught up in the slave trade used the pen to tell their stories. They demanded change and engaged with European intellectuals.  On display are examples of letters, texts and life accounts written by Olaudah Equiano, the most famous 18th century British writer of African heritage – and the scholar Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, born into a family of Muslim imams in West Africa in 1701. In 1731, while on a trading mission to the River Gambia to sell two black slaves to the English ship Arabella, Diallo was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and transported to Maryland where he was made to work on a tobacco plantation. Eventually freed, Diallo arrived in London in 1733 where he was recognised as a deeply pious and educated man, and mixed with intellectuals and high and society. His portrait (which I saw in 2012 when it was briefly on show at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool) was memorably painted by William Hoare, whose specialism was the portrayal of  members of Georgian high society.

Letter from Ignatius Sancho to William Stevenson, April 1779
Letter from Ignatius Sancho to William Stevenson, April 1779

Ignatius Sancho was born on a slave ship and went on to become an influential intellectual figure in London. As a child, he was ‘owned’ by three sisters in Greenwich, but soon came under the patronage of the Duke of Montagu, who cultivated Sancho’s literary talents. Employed as the Duke’s butler, Sancho became part of the literary scene, writing music, poetry, plays and letters. In one exhibited letter written in April 1779 (above), he condemns English politicians:

I am Sir an Affrican – with two ffs if you please – and proud am I to be a country that knows no Politicians – nor Lawyers…

That voice – proud and rebellious – threads through the next section of the exhibition, ‘Speaking Out’, in which we are presented with examples of how West African intellectuals, political figures, musicians and ordinary people have spoken out against colonialism, racist ideology and corruption from the days of European colonialism to the present.

Map of colonial rule in West Africa, 1922
Map of colonial rule in West Africa, 1922

From the beginnings of the slave trade in the 15th century, European powers gradually encroached on African territory. But the pace of colonial expansion intensified in the late 19th century, a carve-up of West Africa between Britain, France, Germany and Portugal confirmed by the Berlin Conference of 1884. The map above (one of several in the exhibition charting shifting patterns of rule in the region) shows the situation after the First World War when Germany had been stripped of its colonies in the region.

How Dr. Nkrumah conquered colonialism, pamhlet published in Accra, 1954
‘How Dr. Nkrumah conquered Colonialism’, a pamphlet published in Accra, 1954

I lingered more quite a while over an interesting display of examples of popular pamphlets published across West Africa that reached a growing audience as education spread in the 20th century. The authors of these cheaply-produced publications aimed to inform, educate and entertain.  They often promoted public health, religious or political messages, such as a pamphlet published in Accra in 1954 which celebrated the career of the nationalist leader Kwame Nkrumah, who became Ghana’s first president when the country became the first European colony to achieve independence in 1957. I was fascinated by the  numerous examples of simply-produced pamphlets that ranged from scholarly works to political agitation, religious tracts and advice on the latest fashions and gadgets.

A French postcard showing a griot (musician and story-teller), c. 1904
A French postcard showing a griot (musician and story-teller), c. 1904

There is so much to absorb in this exhibition, which devotes close attention to the rich detail of West African textiles, carving, literature and film. But the British Library does an exceptional job of presenting the aspect of West African culture that has enthralled me more than any other – the music. The story that the curators tell is of how song and music have always been the most important means by which knowledge of the heroes and achievements of the past, as well as cries against injustices in the present, have been transmitted.

From centuries-old drum language to a French postcard of 1904 portraying a griot (musician and story-teller) with his kora; from a room dedicated to the music and activism of Fela Kuti to the songs of Rokia Traore and other female singers championing the rights of African women, it’s the same story.

Fela Kuti photographed by Bernard Matussière
Fela Kuti photographed by Bernard Matussière

Fela Kuti was a vocal critic of the military dictatorship which ruled Nigeria during the 1970s and 1980s. Beaten and imprisoned for his trouble, Fela was a Pan-Africanist, a polygamist and a practitioner of Yoruba religion whose Afrobeat recordings (illustrated by a superb display of his LP covers) continue to have a profound influence on musicians – not only in the region, but across the globe. Before this exhibition I didn’t know that the writer Wole Soyinka was his cousin; he called Fela the ‘scourge of corrupt power, mimic culture and militarism’. If I had had the time I could have sat and watched extracts from the 2014 documentary by Alex Gibney, Finding Fela which includes the song ‘V.I.P.’ (by which Fela meant ‘Vagabonds in Power’).

I came away from this exhibition inspired and enlightened. I needed its positive message of the resilience and creativity and the intertwined, polyglot history of the peoples of West Africa having only a couple of weeks earlier read this depressing account in the Guardian of the spread of political turmoil and religious fundamentalism in Mali.

See also



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