Ghanaian art historian, Nana Oforiatta Ayim, is embarking on what could turn out to be a life-long project as she attempts to compile a 54-volume encyclopaedia on African culture.
Too often the story of the continent is told from a Western or singular perspective, but in this case Ayim has gathered a team of local musicians, filmmakers, photographers, writers and artists to help curate and edit the encyclopaedia. The aim is to create a template for the physical and digital collection and compilation of information, which can then be replicated, making it possible for different teams to be working on different countries at the same time.
The archive intends to offer a more accurate representation of the development of the continent, which sadly is still sometimes viewed as primitive and uninformed. Speaking of her inspiration for the project, Ayim talks about how she would become completely side-tracked while doing research for her PHD:
I would go to the underground library vaults, and I would find theses that were so brilliant and interesting, and yet no one was looking at it and it is so valuable…….And at the same time I was also thinking that the narrative that is told about Africa is still the backward narrative: no innovation, it’s ahistorical and stuck. Yet with everything I was reading, it was stories of innovation, of knowledge, of technology.”
Working on the first volume, which focuses on Ghana, Ayim set about creating an internet-based repository of historical and contemporary Ghanaian art, literature, music, science and politics. The encyclopaedia, which will be continually added to and edited by users, will be accompanied by mobile museums and art exhibitions, the first of which premiered in 2017 in conjunction with the celebration of Ghana’s 60th Independence Day.
Sir David Adjaye, the architect responsible for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, believes the project to be an important tool for reclaiming African history, but also that the encyclopaedia will go a long way to expand our knowledge and understanding of the history and culture of our African neighbours:
It is such an important thing because actually East Africans don’t know about West Africans’ culture, and West Africans don’t know about North Africans’ culture, and North Africans don’t know about Southern Africans’ culture — and I am being simplistic here — but it is very hard. So this writing and forming of identity of the continent is really important.”
While the project is still in its infancy, the Cultural Encyclopaedia will ultimately offer an alternative, more comprehensive view of the history – and future – of this incredible continent that we call home.
Visit anoghana.org to read more about the work of Nana Oforiatta Ayim, including the mobile museums she runs, and her involvement in the the pan-African Cultural Encyclopaedia.