The British Library hopes to offer the perfect artistic antidote to a chilly London autumn: a tour of a huge chunk of African culture.
The tour which is tagged; Word, Symbol, Song sets out to appeal both to Britain’s African diaspora and to people who have never visited any of the 17 nations involved.
The 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.
It’s quite a list, but curator Marion Wallace says diversity has been a strength, not a problem.
He also added that, “West Africa is a dynamic and hugely creative place.
“We wanted to give a sense of what has happened in writing, in visual art and in music, right up to the present day. But by some reckonings there are, for instance, a thousand languages in West Africa – so we can only pick out the main strands.
“West Africa has a very old tradition of both storytelling and scholarship. All this was going on from at least the eleventh century.
Writer and broadcaster Gus Casely-Hayford is an adviser to the exhibition. His own family roots are in Sierra Leone and, in what was then, the Gold Coast (now Ghana).
“Eighty years or so ago, my grandfather sat in the British Museum and wrote nationalist pamphlets against colonial rule in West Africa. So it’s wonderful that now we have this material at the British Library: it’s a really important exhibition.
“Perhaps down the years, Africa has not often enough been part of the schedule, but we can all learn from Word, Symbol, Song.
“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 and complexity and intellectual depth of West African history.
“So this is a way to get people to rethink our relationship generally, with Africa and its history. And I hope that West Africans will come too and maybe think about what unites the region.”
Marion Wallace says people who are keen readers may not realise they have already sampled West African literature.
“There are obvious names such as Chinua Achebe and the Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka, but the Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri is also in that tradition. And we’ve just had another Nigerian writer, Chigozie Obioma, on this year’s Man Booker shortlist.”
West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is on at the British Library in London until February 2016.