Travel the Sahara Superhighway at The Met

12th – 14th c. terracotta equestrian statue from the Middle Niger civilization (Mali).

As you confront the stone monolith in the entry, get prepared to see art you’ve never before encountered, learn about empires you didn’t know existed, and fill in the blank spot on what you know about African history.

Beauty and cultural discoveries are everywhere in a first-of-its-kind exhibition on Saharan artistic legacies in Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, on view through October 26 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Large 12th – 13th c. gold pectoral, found at a burial in northwest Senegal, with elaborate filigree. Courtesy: IFAN, Senegal

The shifting sands of the Sahara are echoed in the centuries of shifting artistic traditions, migrations, civilizations, religions, and cultural affinities of the Saharan people. Take a look at our Flickr album.

This gorgeous show is one of the first to tie and unite the threads of the sub-Sahara’s nearly invisible history for Western audiences. Western approaches to art history have traditionally made it appear as if the people on a large content were a monoculture with no beginning, end, or history. The show brings a deeper artistic and historical context to work that has always suffered from just being lumped together as “African art,” or worse, “primitive art.”

Scholars on two continents are starting to piece the story together, reflected in the exhibition’s design. The alcoves are a primer to walk back through time to understand the region’s complex history, which covers deserts, oases, and farming areas that are the size of Europe. For centuries, the region was criss-crossed by trading routes (the “Saharan superhighway”) through which caravans delivered luxury goods, exotic raw materials, news, and new cultural influences.

Pre-1659 royal tunic, a European import from the Ardra kingdom (south Benin) via Mandé trade routes. Courtesy: Museum Ulm

Wooden or fired clay depictions of warrior kings on horseback from the 3rd through 19th centuries line the exhibition’s central path. Settlements, archeological sites, and kings are named, with the vast region’s artifacts, architecture, and traditions of storytelling joyously placed into a proper context.

There are plenty of national treasures, such as the gold pectoral from Senegal and lively terra cotta sculptures (likely made by women) from Mali, made with the highest levels of craftsmen between the 12th  and 14th centuries. Another highlight is the still-vibrant 8th-century woven tunic from Niger, one of Africa’s most ancient textiles.

The exhibition explains how Islam gradually, peacefully became the dominant religion in sub-Saharan Africa, displacing the previous belief systems. As is the case with other world cultures, artists continued to merge and adapt older, more traditional symbols and forms with the new.

Wood sculptures of Mali’s Bamana people, from the 15th to 20th century

An intriguing 15th-century Italian map-painting documents Mansa Musa, a 14th-century emperor from Mali, who achieved global celebrity status for his over-the-top pilgrimage to Mecca via Cairo and was inspired to develop Timbuktu into a center of Islamic scholarship.

The display of Bamana sculptures, dating from the 15th to 20th centuries, in the rear gallery is the show’s dramatic conclusion, although the walls depict incredible resist-dye textiles made by early 20th century women in Mali and couture-level embroidery on pure white status garments of the Timbuktu elite from the Sixties.

Senegalese kora made before 1878, used by griots to perform social narratives.

The show was an epic undertaking by the Met  – organizing a narrative and objects to tell two thousand years of relatively unknown history; first-time loans of national treasures from the museums in Niger, Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania; arranging for an 8,000-lb. monolith to be shipped across the Atlantic to New York.

The epic histories recounted by griots playing traditional instruments over the centuries play a large role in the exhibition. Koras and percussion instruments are on display, and music permeates the galleries.

Here’s a peaceful walk through the exhibition with music by Toumani Diabaté with Ballake Sissoko:

For an in-depth understanding of this ground-breaking show, join in on this conversation with Met curator Alisa LaGamma and scholar and writer Manthia Diawara:

Learn more about the epic history of the Sahara in the Met’s exhibition guide.

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