Dazzling diversity of West Africa exhibited at the British Library

Word, Symbol and Song, a new exhibition at the British Library sensitively weaves its way through West African history, exhibiting its rich and vibrant culture in all its glory whilst never sidestepping the darker facets of its past.

The huge carnival queen that towers over the space would be the first to grab the attention of visitors, complemented by David Rudder’s Calypso Music pumping out of some speakers; transporting them back to scenes reminiscent of Notting Hill Carnival’s golden era in the 90s.

The exhibition opened with Celebration on October 16th – a mega concert to celebrate the 77th birthday of the late Afro-Beat legend Fela Kuti of Nigeria – himself a striking example of west Africa’s artistic influence.

Marion Wallace, the shows curator, admitted that selecting what to exhibit from a culture that spans 2,000 years, 1,000 languages and 17 countries was no easy task; particularly whilst navigating the more prickly aspects of its history such as the transatlantic slave trade.

She says they eventually narrowed it down to “themes and storylines.” She wanted to create a “multidimensional experience”, rather than one where visitors would “just look at a book.”

This rings true upon arrival to the exhibition. Divided into five sections – west Africa is explored outside the usual institutionalised framework.

Instead, collaborations with anyone from South London drumming groups to Nigerian academics to west African lorry drivers can be seen – a far more human and inclusive approach to these diverse nations.

There is no universally accepted definition West Africa, although this exhibition covers Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Gambia and Cape Verde. Quite a list.

Advisor to the exhibition Gus Casley-Hayford, with roots in Sierra Leone, highlights why what has been done with Word, Symbol and Song is so important:

“Too many people have thought of Africa as primitive and a place without history, and that meant its importance was under-rated. But with this show, you’ll get a real sense of the richness, complexity and intellectual depth of West African history.”

The exhibition is made to appeal to both the African diaspora in Britain and to anyone who has never visited the 17 nations involved; opening up the vast region to be so much more than the picture Western media paints. It is a humorous, intelligent and engaging insight into West Africa’s true magnificence, and one that will support its development.

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