New York Times: How Diverse Is African Art? A 54 Volume Encyclopaedia Will Try For an Answer

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.

“It is such an important thing,” said David Adjaye, the British-Ghanaian architect who designed the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, and wrote a book about his experiences traveling throughout Africa, “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.”

Ms. Oforiatta-Ayim did research for Mr. Adjaye on the 2010 “Visionary Africa” exhibition at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. She and two other researchers traced 12 African countries’ production centers from past to present.

“So we looked at how art was produced and exhibited now — like museums and galleries — and how art was produced, for example, in 19th-century Yorubaland,” she said, referring to a cultural region of the Yoruba people in West Africa. “It set off this ‘Oh, this is doable,’” she added. “Having a research team, working with them over a year, that was where the idea was physically born because I worked on a project that made it possible.”

In 2011, she traveled by car with the Invisible Borders project — African photographers who head to different spots across the continent each year — to collect materials and connect with artists, curators and cultural producers.

“So I would just film, interview, take pictures and just gather information at every point,” said Ms. Oforiatta-Ayim, who has worked for the United Nations in New York and the British Museum in London. “That was also how I knew it was possible to travel the continent, and I know that in each country there are ways of collecting this information. At the end of the trip I thought, O.K., this is now about building a team and doing this on a bigger scale.”

“Homowo Boy Staff Bearer” by the photographer and artist Nii Obodai Provencal, shown in the Kiosk Museum, 2015.CreditNii Obodai Provencal, via ANO 

She decided it made the most sense to start with Ghana. Ms. Oforiatta-Ayim invited Ghanaian experts in fields like music, theater, filmmaking and literature to a 10-day workshop in St.-Louis, Senegal, the oldest colonial settlement in French West Africa.

“It was an amazing time,” said Anita Afonu, a documentarian whose “Perished Diamonds” (2013) examined the history of filmmaking in Ghana. “And it was very eye-opening, meeting other Ghanaian artists, and discussing ideas and the way forward.”

Ms. Oforiatta-Ayim recognizes that the overall project will not be finished for many years. It will probably take two more years to complete the Ghana volume, which will soon include interactive maps of cultural institutions across the country. Then other countries can begin to add to the encyclopedia.

“So if other countries are going to take it on, then we are going to have a manual like, ‘This is how we collect things, this is what we did wrong and this is what we did right,’” she said. “There is no reason that, once we have the manual, there can’t be five countries at the same time working. So what I am doing is building teams in different countries.”

The encyclopedia is being coordinated under the auspices of ANO, an arts institution Ms. Oforiatta-Ayim set up in 2002 that has put together projects for events including the Liverpool Biennial and Dak’Art in Senegal. ANO has not had a physical space until now, and events there — at least for the next two years — will correspond with the moving museum as it collects artifacts across the 10 regions of Ghana. So, for example, in April, when the pop-up kiosk is in Cape Coast, the theater director and performance artist Elizabeth Sutherland, whose family hails from there, will perform at ANO.

“To have a space that is online, accessible to a lot of people, and existing as a publication is really important for academic but also popular culture and reference,” said Ms. Sutherland, who is a granddaughter of the Ghanaian writer Efua Sutherland.

The Nigerian musician Keziah Jones, helping set up connections to his country’s arts scene, agreed: “What makes up the culture itself? And that is why it is open-ended and it is widespread in music, arts, language, dance. Every possible aspect is used and usable. It’s trying to tell your own stories and taking hold of your narrative.”

All photos courtesy ANO