Scripts are systems of interrelated symbols used to encode and transmit meaning. In the visual arts, they can be used for the beauty, plasticity and rhythm of their forms or as vehicles to assert identity, contest authority and embody the divine.
In Africa, these scripts take a variety of forms. Some are: phonetic alphabets, in which letters or characters represent the sounds of a language; or syllabaries, in which symbols represent the syllables that make up words. Others are: ideographic, comprised of abstract symbols that convey concepts, ideas or things; or pictographic, where the symbol depicts the object it represents. Systems of graphic inscription-such as ideograms or pictographs-co-exist with written systems, are linked with spoken language and ideas, and function much as writing does to record, archive and transmit knowledge and information.
All of these scripts possess a dramatic, visual power that has inspired artists to deploy them in myriad ways and contexts. Whether inscribed on ritual or everyday objects, textiles, the human body or in books, these African scripts are more than technologies of communication. They constitute versatile, aesthetically potent ways of knowing and affecting the world. The mix of traditional and contemporary works of art featured in this exhibition underscores the versatility of script and its great potential as a social, political, religious and popular art form both in Africa and its diasporas. Nine of these scripts are explored further below.