More than 150 artworks richly expressive of the cultural mix of the Swahili Coast are now on view in Washington, DC, in an unprecedented exhibition.
Titled World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean, the show at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art runs until September 3.
It presents a cornucopia of objects including door frames, hand-written Korans, musical instruments, amulets, masks, jewellery, tombstones, photographs and a variety of women’s and men’s attire.
The objects come from 40 institutional and individual lenders on four continents.
Several were borrowed from the National Museums of Kenya and are being shown in the United States for the first time.
The displays highlight stylistic similarities and reciprocal influences up and down the East African coast and extending across the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Peninsula and south Asia.
Europe and North America are represented as well, mainly in the form of collectors, although the impact of Western art is evident in some of the pieces included in the show.
But the geographical spread of items is even broader than that.
A carved ivory tusk made in Congo and brought to Zanzibar shows that the Swahili cultural interchange reached deep into Africa’s interior.
The show’s curators point out that the millennium-long Arab trade in enslaved Africans was one key means by which cultures were mingled and melded.
In contrast to the vast area encompassed by Swahili arts, the dates of the works’ origins are significantly narrower. Most of the pieces in World on the Horizon were made in the 20th century.
Many older objects known to have been produced by Swahili artists have been lost to rot or to fire.
Wooden works can have short lifespans in salt air, while metal adornments were often put to new, unrelated uses after being melted down.
One outstanding exception is a large 400-year-old wood and animal hide drum made on Wasini Island. Now preserved in the Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa, the drum is described in a text panel as “one of the most important cultural objects of Kenya.”
Other notable pieces include a kiti cha enzi (throne of power), a high-backed chair from Zanzibar. The person sitting in such a chair, the curators say, was signifying his “ability to rule and shape the future.”
Viewers will also be delighted by whimsical quirks that offer relief from the show’s sometimes-academic narratives.
A dhow oculus crafted on Pate Island during the first half of the 20th century takes the form of a set of eyes that had been affixed to a vessel’s bow. The decorative accessory enabled the dhow to figuratively see where it was going.
Scores of photographic portraits of local notables, women in fancy dress, and stiffly posed family groups are of interest for their points of origin as well as for their subjects.
Some of the images were captured by photographers from Goa on India’s west coast who worked in Zanzibar. Others were produced in the Parekh Studio in Mombasa and in Lamu’s Bakor Studio.
World on the Horizon was organised by Allyson Purpura, a senior curator at the Krannert Art Museum in Illinois, and by Prita Meier, an assistant professor of art history at New York University.