ACCRA, Ghana — Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, a Ghanaian writer, art historian and filmmaker, drove around trying to find a place for brunch one recent Monday. Many places were slow to open, and navigating in Accra is an exercise in calm, patience and practice as directions often rely on landmarks instead of street names.
Ms. Oforiatta-Ayim has perfected those qualities, not only in driving around the capital, but also with her Cultural Encyclopedia project, which will map and archive both historical and contemporary arts and culture across Africa. After finally finding an air-conditioned cafe, she explained that although she started the venture three years ago, she had been thinking about it since 2009, when she began her Ph.D. research into African languages and cultures at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
“I would go to the underground library vaults,” Ms. Oforiatta-Ayim said, “and I would find theses that were so brilliant and interesting, and yet no one was looking at it and it is so valuable. I would get completely sidetracked reading about things like the technology of kente cloth. 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.”
The encyclopedia will consist of an open-source internet platform for documenting past, present and future African arts and culture (starting with Ghana) and eventually will be published in 54 volumes, one for each country. An ambitious undertaking, the Cultural Encyclopedia aims to change perceptions of the continent and help alleviate the frustration of African cultural producers concerned that their rich histories have been lost or forgotten over the decades because they lack good archives.