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Published:June 6th, 2007 08:52 EST
Works at National Museum of African Art incorporate Arabic, Vai, adinkra

Works at National Museum of African Art incorporate Arabic, Vai, adinkra

By SOP newswire

Washington -- A new exhibition explores how African artists for centuries have used letters, words and symbols to create or embellish works of art.

Some 90 works are on view in the show Inscribing Meaning: Writing + Graphic Systems in African Art at the National Museum of African Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, May 9 to August 26.

“Artwork in and of itself is a potent communicator,” said Christine Mullen Kreamer, the project’s lead curator.  “Artworks that are inscribed with writing and graphic systems become even more powerful vehicles for communication.”

The works range from an Egyptian stela (stone tablet) inscribed with hieroglyphs, which is more than 3,600 years old, to paintings and drawings produced in the 21st century. Eight galleries explore how scripts and symbols have been used, for their beauty as well as their meaning, in everything from sacred scrolls to masks to political graffiti.

This is the first major exhibition that looks at how traditional and contemporary African artworks use scripts and symbols to communicate about issues such as gender, cultural identity, class, power, religious beliefs and politics, Kreamer said.

“It’s a truly groundbreaking exhibit,” she said.

The project was developed in cooperation with the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where it will go later in 2007.  “It was an idea that a number of us had more or less at the same time, and so we joined forces -- two major museums that are dedicated to creating first-rate exhibits about Africa,” Kreamer said.

“This exhibition draws visitors’ attention to Africa’s long history of writing and graphic systems and its contribution to the global history of writing,” she said.

Among the objects are a warrior’s tunic and headdress from Liberia, decorated with eagle talons and small leather amulets holding passages from the Quran in Arabic.  From South Africa, works by Sue Williams feature pages from a 1930s-era government tourist brochure, and another by Rudzani Nemasetoni contains the passbook his father had to carry during apartheid.  From Ghana comes a flag of the Asafo company, a traditional military association, that proclaims, “All our enemies are vultures.”

Kreamer said one of her favorite works is a rare textile from Ghana stamped with “adinkra” patterns that was worn by the Asante King Agyeman Prempeh I the day the British deposed him in 1896.  The patterns include symbols, such as castles and rams’ horns, that represent “resiliency and power in the face of colonial oppression,” she said.  The king was sending a coded message that “the Asante nation would come back, they would prevail."

“This was not a moment of utter defeat, but a potent statement on ongoing power -- only understood by those who are literate in the [adinkra] system,” Kreamer said.  The connection between knowledge and power is an important theme of the exhibition, she said.

Inscribing Meaning focuses on seven scripts and graphic systems: Tifinagh, used by the Tuareg peoples of northwestern Africa; hieroglyphs; Ge’ez, an Ethiopian liturgical script; syllabaries (phonetic scripts) for several Mande languages such as Vai, invented in Liberia around 1832; Nsibidi, a West African ideographic system that employs symbols to convey concepts; Arabic; and the Latin (Roman) script of European languages.

In addition, some artists -- such as Abdula Endoya of Senegal and Nigerians Bruce Onobrakpeya and Victor Ekpuk -- weave their own invented scripts into their works. For example, Onobrakpeya’s painting, Ibiebe ABC III, is covered with his invented script of ideographic, geometric and curvilinear glyphs, which pays homage to his Urhobo heritage.

Arabic shows up in many forms in the exhibition, such as in paintings by Libyan artist Ali Omar Ermes, which present boldly contoured Arabic letters juxtaposed with delicate lines of poetry. Osman Waqialla of Sudan and Nja Mahdaoui of Tunisia also celebrate the beauty of Arabic calligraphy.

The exhibition includes writing boards from Sudan and Nigeria, used to study the Quran, and amulets from Sierra Leone that contain Quranic verses. There are also objects that are inscribed with Arabic transcriptions of African languages.

“I think people really appreciate the diversity of objects that are on view, the many writing and graphic systems they had not been familiar with,” Kreamer said.

The number of visitors to the museum continues to increase, she said, adding:  “African artworks are appreciated and valued for the many stories they have to tell and for the continent’s very rich contribution to world culture.”

See also "National Museum of African Art Celebrates Silver Anniversary."

More about Inscribing Meaning is available on the Web site of the National Museum of African Art.

For more stories about the influence of artists in society, see The Arts.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: