In the lead up to the British Library’s Exhibition West Africa: Word Symbol, Song, Nana Ocran sat down with writer and cultural historian Gus Casely-Hayford who gave his thoughts on the exhibition and his role within it.

‘I grew up in London and my memories are of aunts coming from West Africa and bringing wonderful things, but leaving behind these incredible stories’. So says cultural writer Gus Casely-Hayford.  He’s talking in relation to the depth of narratives that are threaded through the British Library’s new exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song a four-month historical display that he’s involved with, mainly as a co-writer and author of the book that accompanies the four-month showing.

Having been heavily tapped into the capital’s cultural scene for enough years to be able to mark its changing shape as well as its stagnancies, he has an intuitive take on the African zeitgeist in London.

‘I think for such an incredibly diverse and dynamic city, going into any kind of gallery or museum, you just don’t see this energy reflected’ he says. ‘It’s the same in most further education institutions and also in libraries. Most of the people who work in those institutions are as frustrated as those who use them. This goes beyond demographics. It’s a kind of ethical feeling that we’re out of step with things’.

It’s into this climate that the British Library’s West Africa exhibition becomes quite potent, offering content that aside from having the potential to draw in disparate audiences, provides historical and contemporary stories that highlight the eclecticism of African culture. Spanning from the medieval era right up to the present, poetry, art, film, music, fashion and politics all find a space in the labyrinthine display with objects sourced from various West African regions.

‘I think the work in this exhibition is stunning’ says Casely-Hayford. ‘What the British Library have done is actually look at the story of intellectual tradition in West Africa. They’ve considered how an object, like a drum takes its place within an intellectual trajectory’.

There’s a lot to latch onto throughout the displays. Creative writing from some of the 1960s editions of the Black Orpheus African Journal is featured, a bijou Fela room celebrates the Afrobeat pioneer, artwork includes prints and words by Ibrahim el-Salahi, there are documents showcasing Nigeria’s links with South African activism, Ben Okri poetry is scrolled via his Twitter page, and there are portraits of icons including Casely-Hayford’s step-grandmother, Adelaide Casely-Hayford – a key writer, educator and feminist with Sierra Leone and Creole roots.

The same-titled book that documents the exhibition was co-edited by cultural curators Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace. It’s the sections on Ghana and Mali that Casely-Hayford authored.

‘Those are the places I focused on particularly. One of the things I’m really interested in is how traditions, which are 1000 years old still resonate for people in contemporary West Africa. Historically, when northern Mali was raided, the way to profoundly undermine the regime was to burn manuscripts to try in some way to deconstruct the history by destroying the material culture that represented it. So the objects on display at the British Library, the manuscripts, the instruments…they don’t just tell the history, they are the history. It’s still alive, contentious, dangerous and dynamic. You have to understand it if you want to understand the contemporary situation’.

Sections of the book uncover a non reductive way of looking at African monarchy by unpicking elements of the life of Mansa Musu I, Mali’s 14th century king, who in today’s financial terms would have far eclipsed the likes of Bill Gates, Aliko Dangote, the net worth of Steve Jobs, with his bank balance probably only falling short of the full commercial assets of the Apple empire. It’s the Francophone monarch’s historical contribution to the development of Mali’s libraries and education systems that are exposed in Casely-Hayford’s writing.

‘Even today if you look at the university in Timbuktu and the scholarship that continues to go on, he was interested in creating his legacy, not around money, but around building something that would rival any of the intellectual centres anywhere in the world.’

Much of the thinking behind the exhibition is to create a series of displays that aren’t traditionally European in their outlook. There’s a sense of wanting to break an age-old scholarly tradition that goes back through generations of ethnological thinking – particularly in the last couple of centuries.

Casely-Hayford: ‘If you think about the German archaeologist Leo Frobenius; when he first saw the Benin bronzes, he couldn’t believe they were made by Africans and thought they were proof of the lost city of Atlantis. Twenty years earlier, another German contemporary Karl Mauch, when he first saw Great Zimbabwe, he thought it must have been based on original plans for King Solomon’s temple.’

The need to attach the continent’s innovation and ingenuity to Western building blocks is something that Casely-Hayford feels begins with the Enlightenment; the eighteenth century world of ideas in Europe.

However, he adds in the fact that racial hierarchies that spring from old ideas of eugenics were pretty much a British phenomenon.

‘If you go somewhere like the British Museum, you can see the legacies of the Enlightenment hierarchies’ he says. ‘Egypt, you’d imagine is a tradition that isn’t an African one. It isn’t given in an African context. It’s plugged into a Mediterranean, classical context that’s in some way underpinning what it’s like to be a Westerner. It’s the viewpoint that Africa is not just simple, but it’s a place that has nothing, and that all ideas are imposed on the continent. The beauty of this new exhibition is that it sets a landscape in which you can understand these amazing things on their own terms and in comparison with themselves’.

The ‘out of steppness’ that Casely-Hayford feels has hindered some of the creative and cultural output of established institutions is rooted in the fact that libraries and archives are the engine rooms of academia, but these same institutions have often been the slowest to really transform. He sees West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song – which has been five years in the making – as a bold and important move in the right direction. Back in 2005 he was Director of Africa 05, a year-long celebration of Africa that saw a series of high-profile political and cultural events in and beyond London. It made a strong mark but a decade on, why hasn’t the landscape had more of a shift?

‘Progress isn’t linear in this area’ he says. ‘I don’t know what the correct analogy is but it’s definitely gone backwards in certain ways. There are no longer specialists focusing on diversity, and the rationale has been that we’ve made important strides and we don’t need to do much more. That’s a great shame for the whole sector in terms of staff and audiences as things haven’t grown more diverse’.


With the British Library trying to address this with high quality, high investment, deeply researched programming, it looks as though there’s a new beginning. The exhibition coincides with a number of institutions – including Tate Britain and the V&A – coming to similar conclusions and speaking to each other.

‘It’s a difficult thing for curators to take on; effectively changing institutions and doing pioneering work, but I hope the British Library exhibition is well received’ says Casely-Hayford. ‘To some degree the book is very important because it will have a long life, and even in the years to come when it’s out of print and some of its views may seem old fashioned, it’s a concrete record that will always be there’.

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is on at the British Library in London until February 2016.

The book, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is available from The British Library (£20).