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Creative Expression, Culture, and Society

The creative expressions of African peoples are a complex blend of many media, each of which offers a unique perspective and which together communicate everything from the mundane to the sublime. The collections of the Library of Congress are particularly strong in information about art, handicrafts, music, dance, film, oral and written literatures, and other aspects of the humanities that enrich life in each African community and which have influenced societies wherever peoples of African descent have settled.

Adinkra cloth
African textiles may be used to communicate the wearer's feelings or beliefs. The Adinkra cloth shown here is from Daiei Hakubutsukan shozohin ni yoru Afurika no senshoku (Kyoto, 1991). A twentiethcentury example from the Ashanti people of Ghana, this cloth is described as a "dyed and hand stamped textile of cotton with silk inserts." Its original use was as funeral cloth, and the word adinkra means "to say farewell." Selected from more than sixty possible designs to convey the extent of the mourner's grief, Adinkra symbols are stamped on the cloth against background colors such as dark brown, black, or scarlet. (Copyright ©The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, 1991)
(General Collections)

Kente cloth  Kente cloth
Kente cloth is the name for the woven textiles produced by strip weaving by the masters of this technique, the Ashanti and Ewe peoples of West Africa. Designs were created specifically for royalty, for the wealthy, and for ceremonial occasions, and the status and gender of the wearer of each cloth was proclaimed to all those who saw it and understood the meanings conveyed by color and design. Illustrated, from African Majesty: The Textile Art of the Ashanti and the Ewe (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992) by Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard, are a cloth intended for wear by a woman and one for a man to wear. (Illustrations copyright © 1992 by Peter Adler. Courtesy Peter Adler Gallery, London)
General Collections

Celebrations of African arts have drawn international audiences. Brochures, commemorative programs, conference papers, films, music, and sound recordings document these events. The first World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), for instance, was held in Dakar in 1966 and the second in Lagos in 1977. FESPACO (Festival panafricain du cinéma de Ouagadougou) which began in 1969 as result of FESTAC, 1966, is held every two years in the capital city of Burkina Faso. It gathers together all elements of the African motion picture industry to view the best the industry has to offer and to award prizes. The Library has been successful in acquiring the organization's quarterly FESPACO Newsletter, individual monographs, every festival's program, and many related materials such as posters. These may be found in the General Collections, in the African Section's pamphlet collection, and in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.

Anansi Company: A Collection of Thirteen Hand-made Wire and Card Rod-puppets Animated in Colour and Verse
Anansi Company: A Collection of Thirteen Hand-made Wire and Card Rod-puppets Animated in Colour and Verse (London: Circle Press, 1992) by Ronald King and Roy Fisher illustrates a puppet figure of Anansi the spider, a popular figure in Ghanaian folk literature. Anansi is the source of Brer Rabbit in African American folklore. The Library owns number 30 of the 120 printed copies of this artist's book. (Designed and produced by Ronald King, 1992. Used by permission)
(Rare Book and Special Collections Division)

A relief panel from Benin
A relief panel from Benin is shown in one of thirty-five color transparencies of African sculpture produced by Art Council Aids (ca. 1953). From the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William T. Pearson, the sculpture exhibits a style based on the distinctive appliquéd textiles for which the kingdom of Abomey is well known. This series of slides is one example of the resources available to assist in the teaching of African studies.
(Prints and Photographs

Exhibition catalogs assist art collectors, art historians, anthropologists and others to authenticate early works and to trace the evolution of African art. For example, the catalog for the New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition African Negro Art (1935) documents its innovative emphasis on the artistry of the works included rather than on their "exotic" origins. Catalogs often provide the context, explain the function, and trace the development of artistic expression. The Library's collection of hundreds of studies of graphic designs and textiles in books and periodicals such as African Arts and Arts d'Afrique noire have assisted both academic researchers and commercial artists.

Information about artists and art collections may be found in sources such as the Harmon Foundation collection of 37,600 items housed in the Manuscript Division. Among its files of correspondence, catalogs, and scrapbooks are biographical notes on African artists and correspondence between the foundation and African art centers, publishers, and artists. In the Performing Arts Reading Room are monographs with recordings such as Art et artisanat tsogho (1975), including interviews with Mitsogho artisans of Gabon.

Cloth stamped with Adinkra symbols
Cloth stamped with Adinkra symbols, popular today as commercial or organizational logos, has been worn in Africa to express personal theological or philosophical beliefs. In his The Language of Adinkra Patterns (Legon, Ghana: Sebewie Ventures, 1972; 1994), Alfred Ko. Quarcoo offers a table of symbols. (General Collections) top right. The African continent glories in diversity. Based on his own drawing, this map by George P. Murdock from his Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History (1959) shows hundreds of ethnic groups. (Copyright © 1959 by the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.)
(General Collections and
African and Middle Eastern Division)

Of the four hundred to one thousand languages spoken in Africa, the Library of Congress tries to collect materials in as many African languages as there are materials published or recorded, including "contact" languages (that is, creoles and pidgins). The Library collects studies about the evolution and special characteristics of European languages as spoken outside the country of origin (for instance, French as spoken in Côte d'Ivoire). Although most African languages use either a modified roman or the Arabic alphabet, others, such as Ge'ez in Ethiopia or Vai in Liberia, developed independently. All alphabets are represented in the Library's collections. The Language Map of Africa and the Adjacent Islands, published in 1977 on four sheets with a text and index, graphically portrays the diversity and complexity of African languages.

The Library's outstanding collections of dictionaries, grammars, and similar linguistic studies are well known published materials. Other studies are rare manuscripts. "Breves notas para o diccionaro N'bundo ou Angolense," a manuscript dictionary dated ca. 1883 is held in the Manuscript Division. Others appear in more than one format, such as Bibliographie des langues camerounaises (1993), a book accompanied by a computer disk.

The Yoruba Collection of William & Berta Bascom, University of California, Berkeley (1993), consisting of about 700 microfiches, reproduces a collection of 470 rare books mainly on the Yoruba language but also features biographies, novels, hymnals, literary criticism, folklore, and histories, by various authors, dated from 1841 to 1973, held in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.The works are chiefly in Yoruba with some volumes in English, French, Hausa, and Latin. This compilation is available in the Microform Reading Room.

Languages may also be studied using the Library's collections of recordings of the spoken word, music, and films. La Crotte tenace et autres contes ngbaka-ma'bo de République centrafricaine (1975) combines music, poetry, songs, and tales from the Central African Republic in a book and two sound discs. The compilers describe it as a "a collection of 13 texts corresponding to nine Ngbaka-ma'bo tales and songtales, two of which were obtained in several versions. For each text in Ngbaka (with phonological transcription) there are three corresponding stages of translation: one, word for word, a translation in intelligible French, and a final translation" (p. 7). This work provides summaries in English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish.

Polyglotta Africana; or a Comparative Vocabulary of Nearly Three Hundred Words and Phrases in More than One Hundred Distinct African Languages  Polyglotta Africana; or a Comparative Vocabulary of Nearly Three Hundred Words and Phrases in More than One Hundred Distinct African Languages
These pages from Sigismund Koelle's Polyglotta Africana; or a Comparative Vocabulary of Nearly Three Hundred Words and Phrases in More than One Hundred Distinct African Languages (1854) illustrate the principal languages of western Africa. Reverend Koelle, a missionary of the Church Missionary Society, London, assisted in the settlement of freed slaves in Sierra Leone. The languages represented are those spoken by the repatriates, hence illustrating the diversity of peoples who had been enslaved and then were freed.
(Rare Book and Special Collections Division)

The Library offers the researcher the opportunity to hear the sounds of Africa in the Performing Arts Reading Room or in the Folklife Reading Room, where the Archive of Folk Culture is housed. A wide spectrum of music and sound recordings is represented, including contemporary music; traditional music such as that associated with specific ceremonies or events including weddings or funerals; songs and ballads written for political parties and protest movements; and national anthems.

The recording Bantu Music from British East Africa (1954) provides a map indicating the location of each recording and descriptions and photographs of the musical instruments used. African Rhythm: A Northern Ewe Perspective (1995), a study about the Ewes living in Ghana and their music, includes a sound disc. In addition to their performance value, musical instruments may be works of art in themselves. In Musical Instruments of Africa: Their Nature, Use, and Place in the Life of a Deeply Musical People (1965), the visual and functional aspects of instruments are explored in the printed text and on a phonodisc.

Senufo wall hanging
This Senufo wall hanging from Korhogo in northern Côte d'Ivoire consists of six strips of cotton cloth that have been sewn together, commonly called a fila cloth. The geometric designs and realistic figures drawn on the cloth by Senufo religious artists are traditionally used to communicate to the gods and to the participants in Poro society ceremonies the wearer's desire for protection and for life's necessities. Widely imitated and replicated, Senufo paintings are sold all over the continent as mass-produced tourist art.
(African and Middle Eastern Division)

The Library's collections of hymnals have been used by theologians, linguists, and musicians. Among the many owned by the Library is Incwadi yamagama (1849), a Zulu hymnal compiled by the American Zulu Mission, which is bound with a Zulu catechism Incwadi yokubuza: inhliziyo yako ma i bambe amazi ami (1849), the latter containing Bible questions and answers, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. These works are found in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Materials about music and musicians may be found in several other divisions. For author, educator, and poet Melvin Beaunorus Tolson (1900-1966), the Manuscript Division holds a collection of his papers (1932-75, the bulk of which date from 1940 to 1966), about 4,000 items that document his activities, which ranged from serving as mayor of Langston, Oklahoma, to becoming poet laureate of Liberia. His Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953) is in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Those interested in dance studies, linguistics, or cultural anthropology may view videos in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division. Cultural Dances, produced for the Kaduna State Council for Arts and Culture in Nigeria (1990?), is a video recording in Hausa showing costumed performances. The video recording of the coronation of the Kabaka of the Buganda, Ronald Mutebi (Mutebi II), Empaka za' maato emunyonyo (1993), shows a three-stage ceremony reflecting both traditional customs and contemporary political administration of interest to historians, political scientists, and anthropologists. A similar documentary produced by Universal Pictures, Haile Selassie -- Coronation Festivities,1930 includes close-ups of the Ethiopian and western dignitaries in attendance as well as views of Addis Ababa, particularly its large, open-air market and its artisans at work.

The Psalm of David, Ge'ez Manuscript Psalter
Written in Ge'ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church, on parchment, The Psalm of David, Ge'ez Manuscript Psalter dates from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The psalter refers to the Holy Trinity, Mary, Jonah, Zachariah, and others. Depicted here is Moses receiving the tablets of the Law.
(Hebraic Section
African and Middle Eastern Division )

Fî Madh Al-Rasûl
Bound in goat skin leather, the Islamic prayer book Fî Madh Al-Rasûl has an inscription that dates its creation to before 1894 in the Gambia. This beautiful manuscript is written in Arabic with local language translations.
(Near East Section
African and Middle Eastern Division)

The oral narrative, whether epic poetry, folktale, or recitation of a historic event, may be presented by a storyteller, with dramatic emphasis and artistic skill before a live audience. The narrator's performance is sometimes accompanied by music and costumed dancers. Transcriptions of individual epics and griot recordings, such as La Geste de Ségou (1979), tell stories like this one about the medieval kingdom of Segu (Mali). Here the tale is recited by Bambara griots and recorded on disc and also transcribed as text. Anthologies such as Oral Epics from Africa: Vibrant Voices from a Vast Continent (1997) present a selection of works from across the continent. Also available are video recordings such as Keita: The Heritage of the Griot (1994), which dramatizes the Malian epic describing the life of Soundiata Keita, king of Mali (A.D. ca. 1211-55). Modern African poets, novelists, and dramatists have drawn on the classic tales, proverbs, and histories of their communities.

The Library's collections include first editions, reprints, and translations of such African authors as Amos Tutuola, Camara Laye, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Ayi Kwei Armah, and Elechi Amadi, to name just a few. The Library's collections of literary journals, such as Présence Africaine and Black Orpheus, and African newspapers that publish poetry and other literary works will interest researchers.

Haile Selassie (1892-1974)
A hand-illuminated photographic detail from a map of Ethiopia drawn in 1923 shows Haile Selassie (1892-1974), who reigned as emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 and who once owned the map.
(Geography and Map Division)

The Library is proud to count in its collections such ground-breaking works as Maxamed Daahir Afrax's Maana-Faay: qiso (1981-91), reportedly the first novel written in romanized Somali script and Abdulai Sila's Eterna paixão (1994), said to be the first novel published in Guinea-Bissau after it achieved independence from Portugal. The Library owns the 1968 and 1970 editions of The Black Hermit, by Ng˜ug˜ý wa Thiong'o, reputedly the first full-length play by an East African author. The works of the three African authors who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka (Nigeria) in 1986, Najîb Mahfûz (Egypt) in 1988, and Nadine Gordimer (South Africa) in 1991, are in the collections, too.

Recognized internationally for his poetry and essays, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of Senegal, and several other writers (for instance, Aimé Césaire, who first used the word in print in a poem in 1937) developed the concept of négritude, a term used to describe that which is distinctive about African culture as found on the continent and in the diaspora. Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (1948), a collection reflecting négritude, has been noted as a milestone in African literature, influencing other authors particularly in francophone and lusophone countries.

African literature has been made into television dramas and films. For example, Chinua Achebe's popular Things Fall Apart (1958), describing life in Nigeria, was made into a thirteen-episode television miniseries in 1990 and now can be viewed in the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.

Senegalese writer Sembene Ousmane
Recipient of the first prize for novelists at the World Festival of Negro Arts held in Dakar, Senegal, in 1967, Senegalese writer Sembene Ousmane (b. 1923) is also recognized as one of Africa's leading cinematographers. His films are found in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division; his writings are in the General Collections of the Library.
(Motion Picture, Broadcasting,
Recorded Sound Division)

From time to time, outstanding African authors are invited to the Library's Recording Laboratory, of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division to read from their work and comment on it for the ongoing Archive of World Literature on Tape, accessible in the Recorded Sound Reference Center and Listening Facility. In addition, the archive includes material that was intended for broadcast as part of the Voice of America radio program "Conversations with African Writers," hosted by Lee Nichols. Some of these interviews have been published in Conversations with African Writers: Interviews with Twenty-six African Authors (1981).

In addition to the poets, novelists, and dramatists mentioned above, the African continent has continued to produce many outstanding nonfiction writers whose works the Library of Congress collects. The historian Mahmoûd Kâti (1468-1593), also known as Mahmûd K't ibn al-Mutawakkil K't, is highly regarded for his Tarîkh al-fattash, a collection of stories and legends about the Ghana empire dating back to the seventh century A.D. Building on the work of his teacher, Ahmad ibn Ahmad Baba (1556-1627), who was from Tombouctou, an important trade center on the caravan routes across the Sahara, Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah al-Sa'di (1596-1656?) describes nine hundred years of African history in his Tarikh al-Sudan. More recent historians include Joseph Ki-Zerbo of Burkina Faso, who in addition to writing many articles and histories of Africa, served as an editor of unesco's eight-volume General History of Africa (1981-91). Although a physics professor at the Senegalese national university, Cheikh Anta Diop has become best-known for his writings on the origin of man and the history of ancient African civilizations, many of which have been translated from French into English.

The examples described above illustrate the rich treasury of creative expression, intellectual challenge, and cultural diversity preserved in the Library's Africana collections.

Dala'il al-Hasan w1-al-Husayn  Dala'il al-Hasan w1-al-Husayn
Dala'il al-Hasan w1-al-Husayn
(1958), an Islamic prayer book from Zaria, Nigeria, offers a beautiful modern example of handwritten Arabic calligraphy used to write an African language.
(Near East Section
African and Middle Eastern Division)

  HOME  Foreword  Introduction   Overview  Creative Expression, Culture, and Society  African Peoples' Encounters with Others  Contemporary African States  Note to Researchers  List of Sub-Saharan Countries  Publications  Writings

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