As Covid-19 lockdown restrictions ease in the UK, a new art exhibition in London is shining a light on lesser-known aspects of Black history.
Celebrating everything from South African jazz to a 20,000-year-old mathematical artifact, “A History Untold” aims to showcase Africa’s diverse contribution to world history.
The exhibition is presented by England rugby player Maro Itoje whose love of African art was formed by regular trips to Nigeria, the country of his parents’ birth. Itoje grew up in London but has always felt a strong connection to his Nigerian ancestry.
Last year he attended the Black Lives Matter protests in London and hosted podcast series Pearl Conversations, which featured prominent Black role models. He is also a supporter of the educational charity The Black Curriculum, which is focused on introducing more Black British history into the UK curriculum.
The inspiration for this exhibition came from Itoje’s personal experience of being taught Black history in UK schools, which he says left out much of Africa’s rich heritage.
“The African history that was taught, it focused around the transatlantic slave trade, a little bit on colonialism, and a little bit on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in America,” said Itoje.
“Whilst all those areas are important parts of history, they tell a single story with regards to Africa and African history and a story that only paints not even a quarter of the picture.”
Itoje believes “art can speak to people and communicate to people in ways other forms cannot.”
For the exhibition, which is being held at the Signature African Art gallery, Itoje has teamed up with African arts curator Lisa Anderson. She believes the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement means the exhibition is more timely than ever.
Origins of mathematics
Anderson selected new works from six African and diaspora artists that highlight some of Africa’s contributions to the fields of metallurgy, writing, music and mathematics.
Cameroonian ceramicist Djakou Kassi Nathalie has made a clay re-creation of the Ishango bone, which is believed to be one of the oldest existing mathematical artifacts.
The 10 cm long bone is thought to have come from a mammal and has a series of notches along it, suggesting it could have been used as a tally stick. Discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1950, it dates back approximately 20,000 years.
“Some say those ancient Congolese civilizations used the bone through its markings to represent prime numbers or the lunar cycle,” Anderson said.
Nigerian Steve Ekpenisi’s 4-foot-tall metal sculpture of an African blacksmith speaks to the long history of iron smelting in West Africa, which was believed to have started in the sixth century BC.
British-Ghanaian artists Adelaide Damoah and Peter Adjaye have built a sculptural installation and soundscape to explore how Africans were involved in rebuilding Europe post World War II. The sculpture features a 4.2 meter canvas showing images of one of Damoah’s relatives who lived in the Gold Coast, modern-day Ghana, during the British colonial era and was one of around 65,000 Ghanaians to have fought in the Royal West African Frontier Force.
Multi-media artist Giggs Kgole transports the viewer back to Sophiatown, a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, famous as a Black cultural hub in the 1950s. His four digital collages include a celebration of notable South African jazz musicians Hugh Masekela and Oliver Mtukudzi.
Kgole’s painting “Creeping Back From Sophiatown” was inspired by his parents’ stories of sneaking out to listen to jazz during night curfews in the apartheid era.
“I was just wondering, why would one put themselves in so much danger just to listen to jazz music? And then I listened to jazz and I could feel my soul being enlightened, I could feel happiness and love,” Kgole said.
Through the exhibition Kgole is aiming to show people that South African history goes beyond the common narrative of “Mandela and apartheid and suffering.”
“Without the beauty of Black history and culture we wouldn’t be the people that we are,” he said.
“A History Untold” is being shown at the Signature African Art gallery in London from May 20 to June 19, 2021.