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The British Library’s West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition is all kinds of amazing

Someone should have warned me that you can’t really do a quick sweep around the British Library’s new exhibition dedicated to the history of West Africa.  It’s a whole day job that might involve packing some snacks because there’s alot to take in (and justifiably so).  The history of a single African country (let’s say Nigeria) is comprehensive in itself – but this impressive show takes on the noble task of focussing on the region’s 17 nations over a thousand year time span. The sum of that is over 200 manuscripts, books, sound and film recordings, artworks, masks and colourful textiles that never fail to engage or provoke discussion. Highlights include:

  • A Fela Kuti music room
  • A range of cloths printed with messages, proverbs and symbolic meanings
  • Musical instruments such as atumpan ‘talking drums’ and a akonting from Gambia, believed to be a predecessor of the banjo
  • A carnival costume newly designed by Brixton-based artist Ray Mahabir, based on the tradition of Bele, a drum dance and song closely linked to Caribbean history, struggle, freedom and celebration
  • Textiles and music dedicated to Chinua Achebe
  • A presentation of works by authors Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sefi Atta
  • A display celebrating the Nollywood film industry

So if there was ever a question about the significance of Africa to the development of culture and civilisation, this exhibition is a metaphorical bomb drop. Prepare to be enlightened.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song runs until 16th February 2016.  Entry is £10.  For more information visit

Carnival costume designed by Ray Mahabir of Sunshine International Arts in 2015, based on Bele or Bel Air, a drum dance and song closely linked to Caribbean history, struggle, freedom and celebration. On display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, photographed by Toby Keane.

Manuscript culture in Timbuktu in 2007 by photographer Alexandra Huddleston, on display in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song © Alexandra Huddleston.

Fela Kuti photographed by Bernard Matussière, reproduced by kind permission of Knitting Factory Records for West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song.


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