Photo Credit: West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song.
I have made no secret of the fact that much of my initial inspiration for KuDu was born out of a love for the creative traditions of Southern Africa. I am also really interested in learning about cultural and creative practise and traditions in other regions of the continent, as well. The British Library is currently hosting an exhibition entitled West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song.
Some of the history bits I knew already from school (i.e. the history of the slave trade) but others were totally new to me, like the names of powerful dynasties and West African empires that existed a thousand years ago. It is always refreshing to be able to learn more about the cultural history of African societies than the ‘famine-war-corruption’ narrative we are fed so often.
My favourite part of the exhibition was the textiles and specifically adinkra symbols. Originally created by the Akan ethnic group. (There are about 20 million Akan people and they from what we know today as Ghana and Ivory Coast.) The symbols can be printed onto cloth but also carved into houses or onto ceremonial jewellery. They have meaning and significance beyond merely being striking or a pretty pattern but in actual fact were used to convey a message, represent a proverb or denote the importance of the person wearing the cloth. In Europe several hundred years ago only kings and popes could wear purple. Likewise, the wearing of adinkra cloth was reserved exclusively for Asante kings and the symbol number 11 in the illustration below was only to be worn by the king. However, in modern times the wearing of adinkra cloth has spread but it is still primarily for special occasion, the main one being funerals.
I was also glad to see that one area highlighted in the exhibition is the West African, specifically Nigerian, film industry. I was introduced to ‘Nollywood’ films on my last visit home to South Africa where they are broadcast on cable channels over there. There is usually an element of the supernatural, a strong sense of good versus evil and often a storyline the hinges on doing the right thing by people. Bad guys get their comeuppance; the hero/heroine is rewarded for their virtue. As a viewer you find yourself shouting at the screen to urge the hero on their way or boo-ing at the baddies. In spite of the sometimes shaky camerawork and melodramatic acting, they are very entertaining. The themes are much like those in Hollywood films, except without the big budgets or Oscar-winning soundtracks.
Call me low-brow but I always love exhibition gift shops. This particular gift shop had been imaginatively stocked and the range stretched from adinkra-print Oyster card covers, hand-made toy cars, jars of jolof sauce- very daring!- For those of you who do not know about #jollofgate last year here is a summary and the recipe that launched thousands of indignant comments from West Africans around the world.
Photo Credit: Jamie Oliver Jollof Rice Recipe
There was an impressive selection of African literature that I would have bought purely for the funky covers, but I had no space in my suitcase. As a compromise I bought a travel book written by Noo Saro-Wiwa. I have never been to Nigeria and love reading travel writing but it is not often that you get to read a travel book set in Africa, written by an African. I recognised the surname of the author and wondered if she is related to the writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. She is his daughter. I am looking forward to reading it.
Photo Credit: Noo Saro-Wiwa
In the meantime, if you find yourself in the vicinity of the British Library then do pop in and take a look. You have to pay for a ticket to this particular exhibition but it is well worth it.
Photo Credit: Photo of 2D work more than 100 years old
Adinkra mourning cloth collected by Thomas Edward Bowdich in 1817. Bowdich obtained this cotton cloth in Kumasi, a city in south-central Ghana. The patterns were printed using carved calabash stamps and a vegetable-based dye. This oldest known example of adinkra art and features fifteen stamped symbols, including nsroma (stars), dono ntoasuo (double Dono drums), and diamonds. British Museum.