In this extended interview, Marion Wallace and Janet Topp Fargion, the curators behind the British Library’s major exhibition on West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song give us an inside look into the making of an exhibition that covers 0ver 1, 000 years of history and  seventeen countries – Interview by Dele Meiji Fatunla, Publisher of What’s On Africa and Head of Communications, Royal African Society. This an edited version of the interview. 

DMF: How did the idea for the Word, Symbol, Song exhibition come about?

MW: Well, I was asked, – about four years ago – to come up with an idea for an Africa exhibition and I came up with this idea centred around looking at stereotypes of common views of Africa and undermining those ideas. In the end, we didn’t go with that idea because it wasn’t bold enough – but also because if you say you’re going to do an exhibition dealing with stereotypes, you’re going to have to give space to those stereotypes as well, which we decide is not the right way to tackle it. But the idea of undermining some common stereotypes is still very much present in this exhibition. What we didn’t want to do was what would have been very easy for the British Library; which is draw on our collections of Africa and colonialism, and the slave trade – and have an exhibition that looked at things; a historical exhibition that looked at things from that view point – we didn’t want to do that. So after a lot of discussion – we honed it down. We decided we couldn’t do an exhibition on the whole of Africa – it was much to big – so we decided West Africa had real richness of manuscript cultures; writing systems, graphic systems – oral genres and narratives; it all came together in West Africa; so that was a good reason to focus on that region, which also has very strong connections with this country as well – it meant we could look at older connections, of those who were forced from Africa through the slave trade; and also the communities who’ve come more recently from West Africa, as well.

DMF: And once that had been decided what has been the most challenging thing in framing it all together?

MW: There’ve been different challenges at different times…

JTF: …but they’ve also presented opportunities; there’s also been lots of opportunities; there’s a fine line between challenges and opportunities – the primary challenge was – how does the British Library put on an exhibition about West Africa without – we didn’t want to present the British view of things – we wanted to bring out West African voices – how to do that from within a British institution being the challenge; the opportunity that it gave us was to reach out to people of West African and Caribbean heritage; to scholars, of all sorts of backgrounds focused on West Africa, to make new connections, renew old connections, and allow that voice to come out right from the very beginning of the exhibition.

MW: And I was thinking about our consultations the other day – it is more work – if you have to go backwards and forwards all the time – but when I look at any particular thing – like the text for the panels in the exhibition, it has improved it. Without a doubt – it’s made an improvement to what we’ve done.

DF: And it wasn’t frustrating for you as curators –with the authority that you already have?

MW: …If you operate in the academic sphere anyway, you are used to people arguing with you about what you said – and challenging you and clarifying your position…essentially it wasn’t too different from that process.

JTF: It wasn’t different from that process – and one is accustomed to it; and also in our everyday work, certainly in my everyday work, I am reaching out and consulting with scholars, non-scholars, general enthusiasts – and people who just – whether or not they’ve got PhDs have got enormous knowledge and understanding. That we appreciated and learnt from; I think it really did help the exhibition and helped our storyline. Through this consultation people were able to help us – and I didn’t feel at any point that we lost control of the story we are trying to tell.

MW: And we were reading deeply around the scholarship at the time – and there were occasions where we actually said ‘no, this is what the book says’ – and took a view on it.

DMF: How does that – all the work that happens here? How much of what is in the exhibition – is from the BL in terms of percentage? You’ve already mentioned wanting to shy away from putting the British Library’s work on display or….

MW: Well, I meant, when I say shy away from…I meant, it was a narrative that would be easy to tell from our collection; if we want to go into our collection – we can find that kind of material.  We’ve got a lot of printed books especially that tell different stories of African authorship – so about 4/5ths of what’s in the exhibition I would say is from our collection. The problem is, people want to see original things; manuscripts, signed letters, whatever – you can’t just put a load of printed books on display – the problem was making it visual, making it exciting. Obviously our audio-visual collections have gone a long way towards helping with that, to really bring it alive; plus, that’s where the loans of objects come in – they add colour and huge amounts of visual interest –obviously some of our printed books give that as well – you’ve got those beautiful artist descriptions published by the Mbari club for example, and we’ve got a wonderful edition of Things Fall Apart; lots of that in there; but it wasn’t enough on its own to give that visual impact – so we’ve got the Bwa mask from Burkina Faso – we’ve got some contemporary Nigerian artworks – and we’ve got textiles, which add so much colour.

JTF: In my section, which we sort of describe as being slightly schizophrenic – sitting between an archive of unpublished unique materials  – and a library of contemporary publications – so what we try to do in the exhibition is to bring that out to the fore – it is a mixture of the ethnographic, unique recordings in our collections –and also things that people can actually go off and buy – and one of the stories that you could bring out is that this isn’t just something you stick on and listen to and dance to, although it is great to do that of course, but that they are also part of a long narrative history in this region of the world. Our sound collections are really very strong in West Africa in particular but all of Africa, and they go back to the beginning of recording technology.

How do you hope this exhibition stimulates or links back to the way people use the British Library and what you are safeguarding, essentially?

MW: Yeah, I think, people perhaps don’t realise what the library’s got; we’ve already had people asking where do these books come from – are they in our collection? Yes! and we’ve got loads more – we only put out a tiny proportion of what we have; anybody can come and use those collections – you just have to get a reader’s pass and you can come and use the library. I think simple really, it’s about bringing out these stories about African history, and African literature – which are not well-known – the BBC website – came up with a title like Forgotten History, Forgotten Heritage – well I mean, perhaps they are just not known by a segment of the public; and people who know about black history will know about some, but it’s a way of telling that narrative – telling a thousand years of intellectual history – and stories like that of Bishop Crowther, who was the African Bishop on the Niger in the 19th century, who was the major translator of the bible into Yoruba.

DMF: What kind of assumptions are you wanting to dispel?

JTF: I suppose we started off with the idea that when you think of a library; when you think of the exhibitions that have sometimes been on here – like the Magna Carta; Shakespeare – you know, those sorts of things – erm, they tell quite a traditional story of traditional documentation – traditional history – in the sense that something happens, it’s written down – preserved; erm, and it’s not often that that sort of understanding is often connected with West Africa; where people will either think it’s all oral traditions – there’s nothing written down at all; or they’ll think there’s no written history – they might also think that oral traditions are historical and ancient and past and don’t have a role in today’s world, so looking at these traditions that – all of the ancient traditions, whatever they might be – whether they are writing; whether they are engraving symbols on the sides of bowls, or embossing them on – on treasure boxes, or sculpting them into gold weights – masquerades; all those things are expressions of ideas, and they are means to communicating ideas – which is really what literary tradition is all about. And so, I don’t know if that is a popular misconception about West Africa perhaps, but it was one of the starting points for us – that we felt we could tell some surprising stories, we could uncover some of those stories, about the co-existence of intellectual traditions, which still exist alongside one another; and there is this huge variety of adaptation also – I think er, in the sort of section on Speaking Out for example, where you come across some of the first presidents of the countries – who bring with them – great literary knowledge and understanding and creativity that one could say is sort of learnt from the colonial power/past but what they’re doing with it – they bring it back to West Africa; they adapt it, they change it into something, they use it to overpower that colonial past.

MW: They use the technology – they use the printing and publishing incredibly strongly – those small pamphlets; not very well produced but cheap; they’re cheap, physical and they communicate – you know Azikwe – he owned two or three newspapers – and edited, hugely important.

JTF: But also using creativity and the variety of creative outlets, you know Senghor and his poetry – so it is not just; I mean it is largely in those formal communications like newspapers – but it is also through art, through creativity and music – and West Africa, in fact, all of Africa – have a huge understanding of the ways in which music and other forms of communication can be hugely effective in conveying messages – so things like Fela Kuti; things like Sekou Toure Xylophone label for example – expressing ideas of authenticite; the way that Calypso – how that incorporates into West Africa – the messaging that comes out through the use of music and other sort of instruments that act as surrogate speech; those sorts of examples, I think, show – the creativity of West Africans, and the inventiveness of using the tools and making new tools – you know, harnessing the radio – in a way that….

MW: I was just going to take it back a bit as well – in terms of the depth of writing – its scarcely known; people may know about Timbuktu manuscripts – if they know that, they think they were all destroyed whereas less than 5 percent were destroyed because their owners saved them. There were manuscript libraries all across West Africa; it was a region imbued with scholarship and scripts – Tefinagh script was being used in West Africa at least 1500 years ago – so there is a very old history of writing and reading.

DMF: So some of the other things I did want to talk you about… Is the exhibition going out of London at some or any point; it’s potential impact on the continent; and also what the prospective discussions are for the library showcasing other aspects related to your Africa collections – vis a vis – other parts of the continent?

JTF: Well they are big ones – starting at the back end of that; you know we initially conceived or began conceiving of an exhibition that might look at all of Africa; we were very quickly put off that idea – because we thought focusing on particular regions could prove more fruitful for the stories that we wanted to tell; it was the first time that the library had looked at West Africa – and I think if we brought out some really exciting stories – if we can attract some of the audience to it, that we are hoping to – and that if we can create something of the debates that we hope to create – I think there is every likelihood that the library will be up for doing something else on Africa.

MW: In terms of touring – we don’t have any plans for touring – and Gus Casely-Hayford was pointing out to us that the 17 countries that we are looking at would probably have quite – erm, different takes on what they want out of an exhibition like this – but it’s possible…

JTF: But it would be great, continuing the idea of bringing out the west African voices in this; there were 17 countries, let’s imagine one of those countries picks up on one of the storylines – or one of the items or set of items – that they want to interpret somehow, well I think we’d be up for working on I t- but it could turn into something that could be supported somehow – but in a collaborative way – it’s something to think about.

DMF: Why was it so important to engage with the diaspora story in the sensitive way that you did?

MW: Well, let me just fill in a little bit on how we did it – so, the middle section of the exhibition is called crossings – it deals with the transatlantic slave trade, and in particular some of the cultural responses to what happened – in that period of history; so, mainly, we look at the writings of 18th century authors of African heritage in England; so the famous Equiano, Phyllis Wheatley, and Ayouba Suleiman Diallo – and we look at cultural rememberings and re-inventions in the Americas – in terms of religion, carnival and music; so styles and forms and technologies that were remembered and re-invented and new cultural forms that came out of that – and in some cases came back in new form. I think what we have to remember is that there were over 12 million Africans forcibly shipped to the Americans and the Caribbean during the era of the slave trade and of those – over half were from West Africa – so there is a very clear connection with that whole diaspora experience – and for that reason alone – it also allows us to connect with people whose African heritage is further back in time and have more Caribbean and British heritage.

JTF: I think the way that we looked at it – was again to look at the West African voices – so the agency of West Africans who were involved in that period of slave trade – the agency in them harnessing their own traditions; continuing traditions, adapting, reinventing, remembering – as a way of communicating their own histories – and as a way of connecting across the Atlantic and in the diaspora communities in the UK as well and what I find quite interesting is not just keeping it alive but participating in a global literary world and music world, and cultural world –writers Ignatio Sancho being friends with Laurence Stern – you know they communicated within a global literary community – and you get into carnival for example – who doesn’t know Reggae music – who doesn’t know that in the whole world? So, sort of just trying to bring that alive, and the big part of resistance – I think that to me was one of the angles that we wanted to bring out in that section of the exhibition.

MW: I don’t feel we’ve talked very much about the last part of the exhibition which is the literary part of the exhibition – and in a sense that might be what people expect coming to an exhibition like this. We don’t try to give a history or story of creative writing of West African literature all the way from when it began – I mean we do refer to some of the early writing in Speaking Out – but we don’t try to be comprehensive – so we go in from 1957 and that explosion of creativity in the lead up to independence, you know, Achebe, Soyinka – the greats whom everyone cites today, and  Aidoo, and Sembene are the others – those four we focus on, as well as Presence Africaine being founded in Paris, the Mbari club in Nigeria – people who were in the Mbari club – so University of Ibadan publishing literature and Art; we’ve got a great collection of publications – I had to knock a lot off the list – but I think we’ve got five or six in the case; beautiful things – really well designed. And people like Ibrahim El Salahi, Sudanese artist – coming to Ibadan – exhibiting his drawings and the Mbari published drawings of his that had never been published before; they were publishing Dennis Brutus when he was banned in South Africa; in that last section we’re just talking about the explosion of storytelling in different ways now – because I think, it really is clear that in the last ten or fifteen years, African literature has comeback to centre-stage; there was a time when we weren’t hearing so much – and now there are so many writers. I mean Nigeria is a really big thing – in African writing, and there’s also other forms of storytelling and that also we cover – Nollywood, and the last, the very last item in the exhibition is a poem that Ben Okri released on twitter; we couldn’t indicate all the ways in which West African writing is putting itself out on the internet so we just have this – installation of this lovely poem.

Dr. Marion Wallace– Favourite object in the exhibition is: Sheet Brass Box from Ghana

Dr Janet Topp Fargion – Fela’s letter

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song runs until February 16th 2016 at the British Library