V&A Dundee

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Scottish Design Icons: GB Ollivant Ltd

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. This month, Maryam Deeni shares how a small detail she spotted in the museum had a huge impact on her and her sense of self.

A sack of salt. Now, stay with me, because as a third culture kid, this is one story I never thought I would tell.

In the early ‘90s, my parents arrived in Dundee, settled and had my older brother. My mum returned to Nigeria for a year with my brother to visit family (while she was pregnant with yours truly), but that’s a whole other story.

Apart from my first two years in the country, the language spoken at home and the Hausa culture that my siblings and I were raised with, my ties to Nigeria feel limited.

It is like having a distant cousin: you know they exist, and you wish them well, but that’s pretty much it. My ties to and knowledge of Dundee and Scotland, on the other hand, feel very strong.

For example, I said ‘daer’ instead of ‘door’; ‘mak’ instead of ‘make’; and ‘eh’ instead of ‘yes’. I lived and went to school in Lochee for a bit, though, so the accent was a given. Despite Irn-bru coursing through my veins, my obsession with shortbread and love for pehs, haggis, neaps and tatties, I never felt like Dundee was truly home.

Random people on the street have never made it easy for me either, asking “where are you really from?” Apparently “Dundee” isn’t a sufficient answer. Everyone at school had a story about how their family was connected to the city; I never felt left out, just separate from the fabric of Dundee. Ditto Kano in Nigeria where I was born.

Salt sack sample manufactured by A&S Henry & Co for GB Ollivant Ltd. Copyright Dundee City Council (Dundee Art Gallery and Museums).

You can imagine my absolute shock and amazement when I noticed this salt sack in the Scottish Design Galleries. The sack was manufactured by A&S Henry & Co, who were based on Victoria Road in Dundee. They primarily worked in the cotton and jute industries, trading with companies operating within the Asian and African sub-continents.

The salt company on the sack, GB Ollivant Ltd, was a conglomerate originally trading in earthenware, iron sheets, textiles, beer, soap, beads and textiles. They opened factories in Kano and Zaria, as printed on the poly-cotton sack. Kano was known for its cotton, leather and iron production, in addition to the renowned commerciality of the city.

The trademark design is what caught my eye first: the Arabic script written in a similar style to the traditional ‘Ajami’ script, which used Arabic text to phonetically write the Hausa language prior to colonialization.

The illustration of the gazelle struck a nostalgic cord. I felt like I had seen it somewhere…or perhaps it was more the design style; memories of childhood, the cringey Hausa movies which are now a guilty pleasure and my mum telling stories of home.

The printed city names on the sack confirmed it. I would have happily walked off with the knowledge of the trademark being on display, but I then realised: this was like that big piece of meat you snuck out of the cooking pot (sorry, mum). It meant that something from the motherland was being portrayed with substance, despite being attributed to Scottish design (though that’s beside the point for now).

Museums, when it comes to Africa, often create displays that focus on ancient Egypt and tribalism. No major strides have been made in highlighting different African societies’ contributions to the sciences, arts, design and architecture. We raised empires and ruled kingdoms and city-states (both matriarchic and democratic) that still operate to this day.

With the looting, pillaging and broader devastation that came with colonialism, the least that museums can do now is tell stories of the people as it was. This salt sack is a small step in the right direction, so long as we promote the relationships that went beyond these isles, showcasing the interconnectivity of people’s, ideas and lives.

Finding something that relates to me, even something as seemingly irrelevant as a sack of salt, has significance. With knowledge comes power and, more importantly, empowerment of self.

Maryam is a Learning Coordinator at V&A Dundee.