The culture of an area is loosely defined by the arts, music, language, and dance found in that region. It takes many different shapes and styles across the globe and is often influenced by the past. You come to know of your culture by learning the stories of your people and taking it as your own, letting it resonate within your own heart. You save it as your own song to sing and to share with your children and grandchildren.
It is becoming terribly common to see indigenous cultures songs go unsung as its people are relocated, adapt to modern technology, and, in the case of new generations, fail to take interest in their culture’s history. It is estimated that one language dies every 14 days, dissolving as communities adopt English, Spanish or Mandarin.
Nana Oforiatta-Ayim is taking the initiative to record the cultural history and art of Africa — something that no one has thought to do before. She is compiling the evolution of art, as well as that of contemporary art, of the 54 different African countries to create the first “cultural encyclopedia.” She believes her passion for initiating this project comes from her time spent studying as a PhD student.
“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,” she tells The New York Times. “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 Ghanaian writer and art historian received a $40,000 grant in 2015 from the Los Angeles County Museum to fund the project. The museum recognized the need to preserve the artistic expressions of the African people and help to spread the knowledge of the continent’s rich history with the rest of the world.
The Cultural Encyclopaedia is encouraging Africans to contribute old photographs, pieces of intricately designed fabric and original works in the form of books and articles. She has been working to create a collection of filmed oral histories from the elders of communities and others that are willing to contribute.
Obviously, she couldn’t do it all herself and had to reach out to interested people in other countries that were willing to take on the challenge of collecting data. For cataloging information, she created a system that anyone could follow that would ensure consistency in the collection.
Just like in areas of health and science, human culture has a story to read throughout the evolution of time. Developing new data systems, as this resource from Ohio University shows, collecting data tells the story of the health of entire populations. Ice core samples, as the British Antarctic Survey shows, allow us to see the story of the past and currently rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere. Oforiatta-Ayim’s work will help to see a clear history of how cultures developed.
The pottery and remains found in the American Southwest tell archaeologists which era of Anasazi people inhabited different ruins were from by analyzing the decorative patterns on pot shards or the style of weaving of basket remains. There are discernible differences in the remaining pictographs and petroglyphs that remain intact from these ancestral people that tell their stories of hunting, where to find water, and how to locate food caches — if you know how to read them.
The Cultural Encyclopaedia will work to preserve the arts of the people of Africa so that historians will not have to work to decipher their meaning. It will also be useful in the passing of information to younger generations that may not necessarily be invested in learning until they become young adults and become curious about their ancestors.
This ambitious act initiated by Oforiatta-Ayim should be considered worth using around the world to preserve the history of the expansive amount of different remaining cultures that our earth offers. As we progress into the future, it is important and enriching to stop and listen to the songs of the past.
Nana Oforiatta-Ayim – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Villagers – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Historical Relics – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Guest Author Bio
W.M. Chandler is a Colorado native and works best with her head in the clouds. She is an avid researcher and enjoys writing about unfamiliar subjects. She writes passionately about nature and the outdoors, human connections and relationships, nutrition and politics.
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