THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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7 posts categorized "West Africa"

01 August 2016

An in-depth look at the British Library’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa

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In his previous blog, PhD student Paul Naylor introduced the BL’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa, on which he has been working. In part two of this blog series, and with the cataloguing of the collection almost complete, Paul looks at the collection in more depth, picking out some particularly interesting items.

Religious Works
Most of the material in the collection is of a religious nature, reflecting the strong link between literacy in the Arabic language and Islamic learning in 19th century West Africa. There are five complete copies of the Qur’an – the holy book of Islam – and many more incomplete sections. (In a forthcoming blog I will reflect on some unique features of the BL’s collection of illuminated Qur’an copies produced in West Africa.)

Other religious works include copies of biographies and praise poems of the Prophet Muhammad, many of which are recited on the occasion of the Prophet’s Birthday (Mawlud). There are also many devotional and mystical works from the Qadiri and Tijani Sufi orders, founded in 12th century Baghdad and 18th century Aïn Madhi (present-day Algeria) respectively and popular in West Africa.

The collection also features spiritual works from West African religious movements. In 1804, the teacher and social reformer Usman dan Fodio embarked on a military campaign resulting in what we know today as the Sokoto Caliphate, in the area of present-day northern Nigeria. Usman’s movement had a profound effect on West African society and for many Muslims he is a figure of immense spiritual importance. The British Library’s collection includes a fine copy of the 'Meadows of Paradise' (Rawḍ al-Jinān). This is a work of 'miracle literature' about Usman written by Gidado dan Layma, one of his closest associates, and compiled sometime in the 1840s. Its presence in this material, which is almost certainly from a region beyond the Sokoto Caliphate, is testament to the extent of Usman’s influence throughout the West African region. A page from this work is shown below.

Image 1 OR 6953_279v
Page from the 'Meadows of Paradise' (Rawḍ al-Jinān), by Gidado dan Layma. Or 6953 f. 297v.

Educational Works
For the British Library’s recent ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ exhibition, we showcased items from the collection demonstrating the breadth of the Islamic ‘core curriculum’  still being taught to students in centres of Islamic learning across the West African region (Hall & Stewart 2011: 109-74). These works include canons of Maliki law (the branch of Sunni Islam followed in West Africa) and texts on Islamic beliefs and  practices, as well as classical works on Arabic grammar and syntax such as the Ājurrūmiyya.

West_africa_Arabic_ms_work_on_grammar_or6593_255v_west_africa_a80145-15_lores
Page from a West African copy of the Ājurrūmiyya, a work on Arabic grammar by the Moroccan scholar Ibn Ājurrūm al-Ṣanhājī (1273-1323). Or 6953, f. 255v. Noc

There are also many works authored by West African scholars on subjects such as the preparation of halal meat and the eating of kola nut, as well as obituaries for local scholars who passed away. This page is from an obituary for one such scholar, al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami, from a town called Touba, a common name for settlements of Muslim scholars in the Senegambian region. This personage is listed as the owner of several manuscripts in the collection, some of which may be written in his hand or the hand of his students. The author laments, ‘Knowledge has left Touba and Futa. The time of grammar, inflectional endings (iʿrāb) and conjugation is over’ and compares the death of this scholar to a disaster rivalling the Biblical flood.

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Obituary for the Senegambian scholar al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami. Or 6473, f. 105r. Noc

Fawāʾid
Most of the remaining material comes under the category of ‘Fawāʾid’. This term is an Arabic word meaning ‘benefits’ and constitutes a practice or ritual said to result in a supernatural effect. This practice could be something as simple as reciting a Muslim prayer or section of the Qur’an on a certain day, at a certain time or in a certain place. Other documents explain how to manufacture talismans (Ar. aḥrāz). In an Islamic context, a talisman is usually a small piece of paper with a passage of Arabic writing on it. Depending on the intended effect, the paper could be worn about the person as a protective amulet (Ar. khātim), buried in a special place or, most commonly, written out in ink on a slate and then washed off with water, milk or plant extracts. This mixture is either drunk or applied to the body. The image below shows a religious scholar writing an amulet for a widow.

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A marabout or Muslim religious leader writing an amulet for a widow. P.D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises, etc. (Paris, 1853). British Library, 10096.h.9. Noc

Many fawāʾid are accompanied by number squares (Ar. awfāq) in which each row and column add up to the same number, not unlike a Sudoku. The squares, which are common throughout the Islamic world, are said to have come to the Middle East from China. They originally consisted of 3 lines of 3 small squares, before being enlarged and made more complex by medieval Arab mathematicians (Camman 1969). Later they were combined with the science of numerology, in which each letter of the Arabic alphabet is assigned a numerical value, so that the squares could also be used to express words. When filled with a name of God or a Prophet - in letters or in their numerical value - the square was thought to have very powerful spiritual properties. When filled in with a personal name, the square could be used to tell one’s fortune or to protect (or alternatively curse) that person. The earliest Europeans to visit West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries commented on the ubiquitous nature of these devices, which were used by Muslim and non-Muslim alike and made by specialists called mallams (Ar. muʿallim, a learned person).

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Examples of number squares. Or 6576, ff. 11v and 12r. Noc

In the past, this material was deemed to be of little interest to scholars. However, in more recent times, the value of these documents is being recognised (Brenner 1985; Epelboin 2016).  As well as being a fascinating record of West African trees and plants used in such preparations, what we must remember is that each talisman was made at the request of a ‘patient’ for a specific malady or problem.

Thus, these documents are perhaps the most personal of the collection. They reflect preoccupations we can all relate to: the relief of back pain, a guarantee of a happy marriage, the conception of a child, an aide for students to memorise their lessons, or even a husband’s appeal for his wife to come back to him. There are also many ‘love amulets’ with space left for the name of a man and a woman. A detailed study of these talismans will undoubtedly tell us much about the social history of the societies that produced them. The image below is a page from a fāʾida (singular of fawāʾid) to make all who see the bearer love them, ‘as a Muslim loves paradise, as a faithful person loves prayer, as a stomach loves food, as fields love the rain, as infidels and wolves love unclean meat’.

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A love fāʾida or amulet. Or 6880, f. 334r. Noc

In the next few months, detailed descriptions of every one of the Arabic manuscripts from West Africa held in the BL’s collection will be uploaded onto the British Library’s online catalogue of manuscripts. This will make it easy for readers to know what is in the collection and facilitate access and study.

Further reading:

Bruce S. Hall and Charles C. Stewart, ‘The Historic “Core Curriculum” and the Book Market in Islamic West Africa’, in Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon (eds), The Trans-Saharan Book Trade (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 109-74.

Schuyler Cammann, ‘Islamic and Indian Magic Squares. Part I’, History of Religions, 8, 3 (1969): 181-209

Schuyler Cammann, ‘Islamic and Indian Magic Squares. Part II’, History of Religions, 8, 4 (1969): 271-299.

Louis Brenner, ‘The Esoteric Sciences in West African Islam’ in Brian M. Du Toit and Ismail Hussein Abdalla (eds), African Healing Strategies (Buffalo: Trado-Medic Books, 1985), pp. 20-28.

Alan Epelboin, ‘Amulettes et objets magiques du Musée de l'Homme collectés dans les ordures du Sénégal Collection ALEP (1983-‐2016)’ (2016). The author spent many years collecting more modern devices from rubbish dumps in Senegal; this collection can be found online.

 Paul Naylor  Ccownwork

30 March 2016

The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection

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The British Library holds a small but significant collection of manuscripts from West Africa. As part of his PhD research, Paul Naylor is cataloguing the collection and identifying its contents for the first time. Here, he introduces the collection and gives his preliminary results.

The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection
The British Library’s collection consists of eight bound volumes of written material and five Qur’ans, numbering some 3,000 manuscript pages altogether. Most of these items date from the mid-19th century, and were acquired by the British Museum Library (the forerunner of the British Library) between 1895 and 1917. In addition, two of the Qur’ans were acquired in the 1970s, and two other manuscripts have been purchased since 2000.

The manuscripts were paginated and bound in leather, and have remained largely undisturbed ever since. That they were not seen as important is shown by the brief, vague and sometimes shockingly dismissive handwritten records of acquisition: an 1895 entry, for example, uses the phrase: ‘Muslim catechisms prayers and charms in a barbarous African style of writing’.

Thankfully, scholarship has moved on from this view, and manuscripts from West Africa, as from any other part of the world where manuscripts in the Arabic language are created and studied, are now seen as valuable in their own right and important for the study of the societies that produced them. One of the aims of my research project is to facilitate the study of these manuscripts by providing detailed catalogue records and search terms for the collection, so that it will be easily searchable through the British Library’s online catalogue.

Image 1 OR 16751Illuminated pages from a loose leaf Qur’an, kept in a leather bag, on display in the British Library’s exhibition ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ (16.10.15-16.2.16). Late 18th/19th century  (British Library Or.16,751)  noc

Work on the West African manuscripts to date suggests that these items can play a part in removing some of the myths and stereotypes about pre-colonial West Africa. They show that the region was very much connected with the rest of the world, and a place in which education and the written word had a high value. The collection shows a real desire to widen horizons and expand knowledge, and gives us a very personal glimpse of the individuals at the forefront of this movement, to which they dedicated their lives. It is for this reason that it is so satisfying to re-examine and bring to light this rich collection, which should now gain the recognition and scholarly attention it deserves.

Language and script in the manuscript culture of West Africa
Before the colonial period, ‘Arabic was the Latin of Africa’, in the words of the distinguished Africanist scholar John Hunwick[1]. Islam and Arabic learning first reached the West African region between the 9th and 13th centuries. Muslims must recite the Qur’an and the five daily prayers in Arabic, and therefore in West Africa, like anywhere else, to be a Muslim means at least learning to read Arabic script. Religious education in West Africa is and was in Arabic, although the teacher may in some cases explain the reading material in the local language. In 19th century West Africa, a place with more than a thousand regional languages but a remarkably uniform Arabic education system, Arabic was the means of written communication between educated people.

Almost all the West African material in the British Library’s collection is in Arabic. However, while the main body of text is always in Arabic, copyists and authors often include extensive notation in their own language transcribed in Arabic script (ajami) in the margins. In our collection we have established so far the presence of two West African languages, Soninke and Fulfulde.

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Page from the ‘Middle Creed’ of Yusuf al-Sanusi, a text arguing for the existence of one God. The larger text is in Arabic, the smaller text a gloss in the Soninke language (British Library Or.6473, f.214r)  noc

The type of Arabic script used by West African copyists can broadly be classified as ‘Maghrebi’, that is, Arabic in the style written in historical Andalusia and North Africa. It was from these regions that Arabic learning first reached West Africa. Although the French ethnographer Octave Houdas first described Arabic calligraphy south of the Sahara as a unique category in 1886, it was not given much attention. In the 2000s, several Arabic scholars with an interest in West Africa begun to note the wide variety of regional West African calligraphic styles, tentatively classifying features unique to each centre of manuscript production such as Hausaland, Bornu and Masina (Mali)[2]. Much work remains to be done in this field however, and neither the number of distinct styles of West African calligraphy nor the terms to designate them have been fixed. Making the British Library collection more accessible may provide significant contributions to a field that is still in its infancy.

The book in West Africa
Historically, books in West Africa were rare and expensive items and were normally held in small private libraries and passed between scholars, who copied them by hand for their own use. These scholars were teachers and sometimes copyists and scribes as well; many travelled extensively in the West African region, taking their books with them. Manuscripts were generally unbound, and none of the West African works in the British Library collection were originally bound. A century ago, the practice of the British Museum was to bind them upon acquisition, which means that there can be up to 150 separate works in a single volume.

Paper in West Africa was expensive, imported from Europe via North Africa and later the Atlantic coast. As a result it is very rare to find a blank or sparsely covered sheet of paper in the collection. Every scrap of paper was utilised.

One of the really spectacular finds in this collection is a letter from a Muhammad al-Amin Suwaré in Touba (probably in the Senegambian region) to his son, living nearby. Muhammad complains that a scholar to whom he had lent one of his books to copy had not given it back, and had even demanded payment for its return. Muhammad al-Amin asks his son to get this book back to him ‘quickly, quickly, quickly’, angrily remarking ‘I would never agree to buy my own book!’

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Letter from Muhammad al-Amin to his son, with words underlined in red ink by the indignant scholar (British Library Or.6473, f. 190r)  noc

As well as capturing the importance of books and book ownership in 19th century West Africa, the letter is wonderfully personal. Muhammad fumes against the scholar in question, saying he is a man of no religion, before adding in a rather embarrassed note that this scholar could not really have stolen the book, ‘because he is a god-fearing man of faith and learning’. Muhammad also highlights some expressions in the letter as good examples of Arabic grammar for his son, giving their explanation with notes linked by arrows to the main text.

Identifying the collection
Before I started work on the collection, there was very little information about what kind of material it contained, where in ‘West Africa’ it may have come from and how old the works might be. The main task was to look at each work in detail and glean as much information about it as possible. What is the subject area? Does the work have a title? Do we know the identity of the author? Can we get any information about the person who copied it? Where might they have lived, and when?

In a pre-printing age, the only way to reproduce written texts was to copy them out by hand. As a result, almost all the works in this collection are copies of earlier, well-established works. It was not common practice to record the date a work was copied, although strangely the copyist often notes the day and time the copy was finished, ‘on Friday, after the midday prayer’, for example. The best way to estimate the earliest date the copy could have been made is therefore to find out the dates of the individual who created the original work.

The collection has copies of the works of many authors who were writing around the middle of the 19th century. Judging also by the paper – and in West Africa paper has an especially short lifespan - these manuscripts were probably written around the same time. However, many works in the collection were originally composed as long ago as the 12th or 13th centuries, so these manuscripts may well be older than the mid-19th century.

While it is sometimes possible to identify the authors of these works, more often than not the copyist is more elusive, providing no name or often ‘signing’ the copy only with pious epithets such as ‘I have completed it, may God forgive my sins’. However, many works in the collection have colophons, that is, statements at the end of a work giving the name of the copyist, the owner and sometimes additional information. The colophon was also the occasion for the copyist to show off his drawing skills and many colophons in the collection have colourful or geometric designs.

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Colophon marking the end of a series of commentaries on lines of poetry by Sheikh Abdullah ibn Ali, who also made this copy (British Library Or.6880, f. 236r)  noc

Most names given for the copyists are so common as to be untraceable, although one, the family name Suwaré, occurs ten times across two manuscripts in the collection. The Suwaré were a family based around the town of Toubacuta in present-day Guinea, founded in 1824[3].

Part 2 of this blog will take an in-depth look at some of the items in the British Library’s West African manuscript collection.

Further reading
Blair, S. S., ‘Arabic calligraphy in West Africa’ in Shamil Jeppie and Suleymane Bachir Diagne (eds), The meanings of Timbuktu (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2008), pp. 59-75.
Brigaglia, A., ‘Central Sudanic Arabic scripts (Part 1): The popularization of the Kanawī script’, Islamic Africa, 2.2 (2011), pp. 51-85.
Brigaglia, A., and M. Nobili, ‘Central Sudanic Arabic scripts (Part 2): Barnāwī’, Islamic Africa, 4.2 (2013), pp. 195-223.
Nobili, M., ‘Arabic scripts in West African manuscripts: a tentative classification from the de Gironcourt collection’, Islamic Africa, 2.1 (2011), pp. 105-133.


Paul Naylor, British Library Collaborative Doctoral Student, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork

[1] John Hunwick, West Africa, Islam, and the Arab World: Studies in Honor of Basil Davidson (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2006).
[2] See ‘Further reading’ below for more information on this subject.
[3] L. Sanneh, ‘Futa Jallon and the Jakhanke Clerical Tradition. Part II: Karamokho Ba of Touba in Guinea’, Journal of Religion in Africa 12, 2 (1981), 105-126.

26 February 2016

Academic thought in the South

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Continuing the theme set by its acclaimed recent exhibition - West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song – the British Library will be challenging preconceived ideas about Africa and the broader global South with another event. This time, in conjunction with the Academic Book of the Future project, we will be hosting the conference The Academic Book in the South on academic book production.

At the British Library we spend a lot of time dealing with the changing world of academic publications. We have extensive collections of academic books published all over the world. We acquire books from across the global South, in all major languages, and our historic and contemporary holdings are very strong. The book covers shown below give a flavour of these collections.

Image 1A Arabic Image 1B Arabic
Left: ʻAbd al-Munʿim Mājid, Nuẓum al-Fāṭimīyīn wa-rusūmuhum fī Miṣr (Cairo: Maktabat al-Anjlū al-Miṣrīyah, 1973); Right: Luṭfī Jaʻfar Faraj ʻAbd Allāh, ʻAbd al-Muḥsin al-Saʻdūn wa-dawruhu fī tārīkh al-ʻIrāq al-siyāsī al-muʻāṣir (Baghdad: Wizārat al-Thaqāfah wa-al-Funūn, al-Jumhūrīyah al-ʻIrāqīyah, 1978)
These two 1970s texts deal respectively with the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt (973-1171) and the history and politics of modern Iraq. In Arabic 

As the publishing environment changes radically, we know that our thinking about the future of academic publications and, more broadly, effective dissemination of academic thought is incomplete without a truly global dialogue. After all, academic research is geared more than ever to tackle global challenges. This is an exciting ambition across all academic disciplines – from improving health outcomes across the world to finding new paradigms for politics, economics and culture in a fast-changing world.

If this ambition is to be realised, it has to include an effective global system to disseminate new academic ideas in all their diversity. This is why we need to build and strengthen our understanding of academic book authorship, publication and circulation, through dialogue with colleagues in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Image 2 Bengali
Sabitendranātha Rāẏa, Kaleja Sṭrīṭe sattara bachara (Kalakātā: Dīpaśikhā Prakāśana, 2006-2008). A memoir on the book trade and literature in Kolkata. In Bengali

While our contacts across the world tell us that there are common challenges, there is a lot that we do not know. This is why we are pleased to host The Academic Book in the South, a two-day conference taking place at the British Library on 7th-8th March 2016. This event will investigate the current situation and future prospects of the academic book in the global South.

This event will offer a unique opportunity to hear from the speakers and participants across Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, including: Walter Bgoya, Sukanta Chaudhuri, Abhijit Gupta, Sari Hanafi, Shamil Jeppie, Akoss Ofori-Mensah, Mark Muehlhaeusler, Padmini Ray Murray and Nureldin M. Satti.  

Image 3 Timbuktu
Shamil Jeppie and Souleyman Bachir Diagne (eds), The meanings of Timbuktu (Cape Town; Senegal: HSRC Press in association with CODESRIA, 2008).
A collection of essays on the manuscript cultures of Timbuktu, Mali, and the surrounding region. In English

Will today’s ubiquitous digital technologies and open access provide us with a new environment, which will alleviate geographic inequalities in knowledge production and distribution? Will this lead to new opportunities for arts and humanities scholars to make their voices heard as we try to navigate new global complexities? Or is digital change just homogenising the world of academic publications and suppressing the diversity of academic voices?

Join us for a debate and to find out how academics, publishers and librarians in the global South perceive these issues.

This conference is organised by The British Library in collaboration with Professor Marilyn Deegan, Kings College London and Dr Caroline Davis, Oxford Brookes University.

This event is an outcome of the Academic Book of the Future research project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The conference is now open for registration and full details are available on the British Library website, along with a provisional conference programme. The conference fee is £30.00 (£15.00 student rate) for the two-day event, which includes registration, lunch and refreshments.


Maja Maricevic, Head of Higher Education, British Library

29 January 2016

‘Spying’ on 100 Black Men of London: A Ceremony of Learning

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Spying? Not really. Let me explain. I am one of a team of educators at the British Library who deliver workshops for school and community groups. Shortly before Christmas, The 100 Black Men of London - a community-based charity - brought a large group of black youths to the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition. They had organised their own workshop and were using the British Library’s Learning Centre to feedback and share their learning.

This is what I suddenly glimpsed through the glass sections of the connecting doors between the learning rooms: boys taking turns to stand before their peers, to present and share their new knowledge gleaned from the exhibition.
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The group from 100 Black Men of London in the British Library’s Learning Centre.

I was transfixed, for it seemed to me they were reclaiming ground, making the newly-acquired knowledge about their ancestral place of origin their own. They spoke with pride and developing confidence and were clapped each in turn. I was deeply moved.

Olu Alake, of 100 Black Men of London, writes about the visit: ‘Our group of almost 60 young people and some of their parents found the exhibition very enlightening and empowering. It was for instance very gratifying that by the end of that very day, one of our youth groups had changed their WhatsApp group image to one of the adinkra symbols for leadership which they had seen in the exhibition!’ This, for me, is essential use of a brilliant exhibition, and an opportunity for the British Library to build community.

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Section of a hand-stamped textile on display in the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, showing adinkra symbols from Ghana. Some panels show the King’s symbol (adinkrahene) composed of three concentric circles, signifying leadership and greatness. Ghana, 1960s. British Library.

The education workshops we have delivered to varying school groups, as part of the West Africa exhibition programme, have been well received. We engage students through creative research, critical thinking, art, discussion and even song-making. We offer a unique opportunity for students to learn from the wide range of artefacts, written material, textiles, films and music that relate to West Africa in ‘word, symbol and song’.

DSC01864 (Credit Tony Antoniou)
View of the first section of the West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition, which illustrates the Mali empire, founded in the 13th century. © Tony Antoniou

West Africa historically, and today, plays an integral role in understanding the forces that shaped and continue to shape the world we live in, yet many of the students we have worked with appear to have little knowledge of the topic. At the start of one session recently, eight-year-old children came out with statements such as ‘All Africans are poor’ and ‘They were all slaves’. The exhibition workshops provide a really important platform for open and honest discussions to explore and challenge stereotypes.

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The group lined up for a photo with the mega-exhibition poster behind them.

In my view, the importance of this inspiring exhibition as a source of learning for children and adults of all ages cannot be overstated. It is expansive as well as beautifully detailed, celebratory in history and culture, and a joy to work with. My thanks to the curators and all The 100 Black Men of London who gladdened my heart and brought tears to my eyes, even though they did not know I was watching them.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song continues until 16 February 2016. For more information on the British Library’s learning programme and workshops accompanying the exhibition, visit www.bl.uk/learning.

Visit www.bl.uk/west-africa to gain insights into West Africa’s fascinating heritage through unique collection items and teaching resources.

Jean Campbell
Workshop Leader, British Library Learning Team Ccownwork

22 January 2016

Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye visits the British Library’s West Africa exhibition

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Around two thirds of the way through the British Library's exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, visitors turn a corner to be greeted with a six foot burst of yellow: a spectacular artwork entitled ‘Feminine Power’, made up of dozens of intricate drawings depicting proverbs, symbols and meanings from West African culture.  

The artwork was created by two artists, Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye and Tola Wewe. Last month Chief Nike was in the UK for the opening of her new London show, and was kind enough to visit the Library and give us a short interview about the inspiration behind the artwork.

DSC02867 (credit Tony Antoniou)

Chief Nike Davies-Okundaye standing next to her artwork Feminine Power (photo by Tony Antoniou)

Tell us about the symbols in your artwork – what do they mean?

A lot of the faces in the piece represent the feminine which is why the piece is called ‘Feminine Power’. When you go to Nigeria the power of the woman is stronger, and every man who comes to the world comes through woman.

The wall gecko is a symbol of peace. If you have a lizard in your home, it means you have a peaceful home since at the slightest vibration they will run away. Many people are scared of them but you need to find space in your heart for a lizard too, because there is always love and peace in your home if a lizard is there.

The sunshine symbol is one I made up myself, it means ‘don’t let someone block out your sunshine’. Women's faces
Close up cropped image of faces in 'Feminine Power'

What does the subtitle of our exhibition, ‘Word, Symbol, Song’ mean to you in terms of your own work?

It means so much to me because this is like a memory come true. We are losing these symbols and you [the British Library] are bringing them back to life for us. These symbols represent our heritage, our roots, and our everyday culture.

What was your experience of walking through the exhibition?

I just feel like this is my roots. The first item that spoke to me was àrokò [messages made of symbolic objects such as cowrie shells and seeds which were sent between kings]. My father always said ‘send àrokò to the King’. It is always wrapped in a special bag and then they would send it, but they never opened it in the presence of people, and I never really knew what àrokò was. Today is my first day seeing àrokò and this is a good memory for me. And seeing our work here put here at the Library, I am very happy and honoured.

I will be telling people who are coming from Nigeria to come and see your roots, come to the British Library.

Symbolic+messages+mounted+1 for blog

An àrokò message of peace sent by the King of Ìjẹbú to the King of Lagos on the occasion of his restoration in 1851, on display in the West Africa exhibition. Each element in this string of cowries and seeds has meaning, for example the kernel in the middle indicates ‘what is good for me is good for you’. (On loan from Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford)

You can see more of Chief Nike Okundaye-Davies' work in a new exhibition,‘The Power of One Woman’ at the Gallery of African Art until 6 February. http://www.gafraart.com/

'Feminine Power' is on display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song at the British Library until 16 February.

Interview by Sophie McIvor.

15 October 2015

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

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The British Library’s major autumn exhibition, ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’, opens to the public on Friday 16 October. The exhibition showcases writing, literature and music from this hugely creative and dynamic region, grounding the story in a millennium of history and bringing it right up to the present.

Saddlebag-quran-from-the-late-18th-or-early-19th-century-going-on-display-in-west-africa-exhibition-2015_2000
Illuminated loose leaf Qur’an, carried in its leather bag. The Qur’an is typical of those of an area including northern Nigeria and southern Niger
British Library Or.16751
Late 18th/early 19th century
 noc

Africa is often thought of as the continent of the voice, with a literature, or rather orature, dominated by oral history and traditions. One of our concerns in curating this exhibition is to show a different picture, bringing to light histories of writing and scholarship that go back at least 1,500 years in West Africa. The manuscript cultures rooted in Islam, for example, date back at least to the 11th century, and flourished right across the region, from Mauritania in the north-west to Nigeria and Cameroon in the south-east. West Africa also has a very rich tradition of graphic and other symbolic systems such as adinkra (Ghana) and nsibidi (Nigeria).

Seated griot low res
Postcard showing a griot (musician and story-teller) with his kora (calabash harp). It was taken by Edmond Fortier, a French photographer active in Senegal in the early part of the 20th century
c. 1904
Courtesy of Daniela Moreau/Acervo África/São Paulo-Brazil. Digitisation by Jorge Bastos

At the same time, it’s important that orature is not seen as somehow secondary to written literature, to be replaced in the inevitable march of progress. The exhibition, in which visitors can hear and see numerous sound and film recordings, demonstrates some of the complexity and sophistication of an oral literature composed across many genres, which has ancient roots and still flourishes today.

The exhibition is packed with over two hundred beautiful, remarkable and sometimes surprising objects. They include books, manuscripts and sound and film recordings as well as artworks, masks and colourful textiles. We start with a glimpse of the history of the last millennium, and go on to show something of the different religious traditions of the region and the literatures they have produced. Sections on more recent history – the transatlantic slave trade and the colonial and post-colonial periods – look at how West Africans have used literature, and culture more broadly, to both resist and reflect upon historical circumstance. The exhibition finishes with post-independence literature and story-telling, concluding with a poem released on Twitter by Ben Okri.

Printed_cloth_showing_senghor_west_africa_a80145-21
Printed cloth with portrait of Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001), president of Senegal, poet and intellectual
Collet collection, 1975
We have been unable to locate the copyright holder for the original print designer of the Senghor cloth. Please contact copyright@bl.uk with any information you have regarding this item

‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ has been in the making for four years, and has been curated by Dr Marion Wallace (Lead Curator, African Collections) and Dr Janet Topp Fargion (Lead Curator, World and Traditional Music), advised by Dr Gus Casely-Hayford (SOAS and King’s College London). We have consulted very widely with people with expertise in and links to West Africa and the Caribbean, and for the last year we have been working with an Advisory Panel.

As the exhibition launches, it’s accompanied by a programme of fascinating and fun events including musical performances, films, talks and debates. On Friday 16 October, a Felabration marks the birthday of the late Nigerian singer and activist Fela Kuti. The Felabration is fully booked but is being streamed live.

West_africa_gold_weight_sankofa bird_british_museum
Gold-weight from Ghana in the form of a Sankofa bird – a bird looking backwards. This is a popular symbol in Ghana, indicating the importance of history and of learning from the past. Gold-weights, made of brass, were used for weighing gold dust
18th-20th century
Copyright and item held by British Museum

The exhibition is ideal for families as well as adults – children under 18 go free and you can pick up a family trail leaflet on arrival – and there is an extensive Learning programme for schools. Concessions include a generous group rate – £5 per person for groups of six or more. For more details please go to our booking page.

‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ offers a visual and aural feast at the same time as revealing many little-known stories of the people of West Africa. It runs from 16 October 2015 to 16 February 2016.

For more on ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ go to our exhibition web pages.  An accompanying book West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song by Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace is available in our bookshop.

Marion Wallace, African Collections, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork

 

02 July 2015

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

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As the 'Africa Writes' festival comes to the Library this weekend and we celebrate literature from the continent, we are also thrilled that tickets are now available for our major autumn exhibition, 'West Africa: World, Symbol, Song' which opens on October 16 at our St Pancras site in London. 

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Odwira festival, Asante, Ghana, from Thomas Edward Bowdich, Mission from Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee (London: John Murray, 1819)
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This will be the British Library’s first major exhibition on Africa. It will showcase music and literature – both written and oral – from the region, and demonstrate how West Africans have harnessed the power of words to build societies, drive political movements, sustain religious belief and fight injustice. In doing so it will reference a millennium of history and bring visitors right up to the present.

Throughout, we are telling the story of how word, symbol and song have shaped history, politics and religion in West Africa and beyond. The region has a remarkable number of graphic systems and locally invented scripts, some of recent origin, some centuries or even millennia old. West Africans have also invented numerous other means of long-distance communication. The language of ‘talking drums’ is the most famous, as in this recording of Asante atumpan drums, made by Robert Sutherland Rattray in Ghana in 1921. There are also other sonic systems – ‘talking whistles’, for example – as well as coded objects, such as the ‘aroko’ messages, formed of cowrie shells and seeds, of Nigeria.

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One of the earliest records of the Vai script, invented in Liberia in the first half of the 19th century. 1851 (British Library Add MS 17,817b)
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Then there is the manuscript culture of the region, which owes its origin and development to the adoption of Islam. The manuscripts of Timbuktu, in present-day Mali, are deservedly famous, but it is not as well known that centres of learning and scholarship flourished as far apart as Mauritania and Nigeria. In many of these centres, manuscript libraries survive today.

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Page from an illuminated Qur’an in a style typical of the region of southern Niger, northern Nigeria and Chad, late 18th/early 19th century  (British Library Or 16,751)
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Alongside the rich heritage of writing in West Africa – which is flowering today in new forms – we are emphasising the importance of oral literature, an intensively creative art form expressed across a range of genres. Orature, as it is sometimes called, draws on the resources of the past but is constantly recreated in performance. It has deep musical roots and is as often sung as spoken, most famously by West Africa’s griots (story-tellers and musicians).

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Griots – West African musicians and story-tellers. From Alexander Gordon Laing, Travels in the Timannee, Kooranko, and Soolima countries in western Africa (London: J. Murray, 1825)
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All these threads are brought together as visitors walk through the exhibition. We begin with precolonial West Africa, and go on to the major religions and their various traditions of art, writing and ritual. Moving beyond the region, we look next at the transatlantic slave trade and the role of culture – writing, religion, music, carnival – in resistance. In West Africa, writing and song offered important ways of protesting and reflecting on public life during the colonial era and beyond, and these are the subject of our ‘Speaking Out’ section. The exhibition finishes with ‘Story Now’ – the marvellous and multi-faceted literary flowering of the region from independence to the present.

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This forowa or sheet-brass box will be loaned to the British Library for the exhibition by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. It comes from Ghana and is rich in symbolic content. Ghana, before 1900.  Photograph courtesy of the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Audio-visual items from the British Library’s collections and elsewhere – music, film, stories and other recordings – have been carefully curated and woven through the story. Manuscripts, books and photographs from our collections are joined by numerous loans, including colourful printed textiles, miniature gold-weight sculptures and modern artworks.

The exhibition has been in preparation for more than four years, and the curators have engaged in extensive external consultation, which has helped to shape the focus, direction and content of the project. We are currently working with an external Advisory Panel, chaired by Dr Gus Casely-Hayford. The curators are Dr Marion Wallace (Lead Curator, African Collections) and Dr Janet Topp Fargion (Lead Curator, World and Traditional Music).

The exhibition runs from 16 October 2015 to 16 February 2016. Booking is open now at www.bl.uk/west-africa. An exciting and diverse programme of events will run alongside the exhibition.


Marion Wallace, African Collections, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork