Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara

The location map at the entrance to Gallery 199 made clear that the exhibition’s scope was a focus on the forms and expressions of material culture that emerged in the western Sahel, spanning various transitional periods from the dawn of ancient Ghana in the 4th century through to the fall of the Segu Empire in 1861. Uncharacteristically, attention was not always centred around the imperial capitals and major trading hubs that existed throughout that period, but instead concentrated on the locations that represented territorial margins and liminal spaces between culturally distinctive communities and their respective settlements. Consequently, the thematic foci of the exhibition advanced spatio-temporal narratives about migration, trade histories, cross-cultural dynamism and hybridity as much as emphases on the chronological sequencing of archaeological findings and archival research undertaken in the region.

Selection of textile fragments, Tellem civilisation, Mali, 11th-12th century. Cotton. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

As the exhibition’s title indicates, the etymology of “Sahel” derives from the Arabic word for “shore.” So, the exhibition’s narrative arc – presented through the interpretation of assembled artworks, artefacts, ancient manuscripts, archival images and other documentary photographs taken at key archaeological sites throughout the region – is reflective of the various exchanges, linkages, contiguities, flows and tensions that are symbolic of the histories and cultural fluidity of the region at its most active and porous (border-)lines of hybridity and transformation.

Sculptures

Textiles

Jewellery

Jewellery from the Treasure of Ahmadu, ca. 1900. Gold and leather. Potentially, this item was created during the late 18th or early 19th century by the Segu peoples of Mali. It is part of a collection looted by French Army general and colonialist Louis Archinard (1850-1932) during the siege of Segu, currently within the holdings of the Quai Branly Museum, Paris.
A bracelet, vessel, neck ring and selection of decorative figures from the Middle Niger region, Malian Empire, 9th-14th century. Copper alloy and Bronze. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

Maps, Manuscripts and Calligraphic Art

Talismanic Manuscript and Tablet, Guinea, 1864-65. Ink on paper, cotton and leather, from the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

The earliest epigraphic material documenting Sahelian cultural life dated back to the presence of 9th-10th century North African Berber inscriptions of ‘tifinagh’ characters incised on stones and rocks throughout the Niger area of the Sahel. Later documentation from the 11th-14th century discussed the history and achievements of the Malian Empire and rulers such as Mansa Musa detailed in the texts and symbols of nautical atlases, maps and religious scripts carved on wooden boards and inked onto panels of parchment.

One of the exhibition’s most beautiful manuscripts was the Guinean tallismanic text written on paper, cotton and leather by the Mande peoples of West Africa and dated 1884-85 (shown in the photo, above).

Although I am not usually someone who makes regular use of the pre-recorded audio descriptions, in retrospect my visitor experience would certainly have been enhanced by having the option to listen to scripts, songs, epic poems and praise narratives from different areas of the Sahel spoken and performed aloud to create an immersive, multilingual soundscape for the object-based elements of the display.

Concluding reflections

Dr Carol Ann Dixon at the entrance to the Sahel exhibition, Gallery 199, The Met, February 2020.

The depth and breadth of the content assembled to curate this exhibition was a wonder to experience at first hand, and remains my most rewarding museum-based learning experience of 2020.

In closing this review, it is also important for me to publicly share (esp. for those readers who assume that because I have a doctorate, my academic status makes me somehow invulnerable to racial discrimination) that, although I encounter overt and covert forms of racism and micro-aggression during most museum visits to mainstream institutions in the West, the traumas caused by the prejudices of such racists will never deter me. The ratio of two out of three of the following concluding occurrences at the Met should, on balance, help to explain why:

  • To the elderly, white woman who grabbed her handbag and turned up her nose in disgust as I approached the textile display to take close-up photographs of the ancient Malian textile fragments in the vitrine I say:
    “I will NEVER cease to walk freely and confidently through the museal spaces my taxes and ticket payments fund simply because you seek to dehumanise me (and other people who look like me) through the aggressive and violent racism you choose to wield as a weapon of abuse, and a deluded means of falsely elevating yourself.”
  • To the charming and courteous African American man who kindly took my photograph as I was leaving the exhibition I say: Thank you, young brother, for your smile and your generosity towards a stranger. I hope you enjoyed the exhibition as much as I did, and that the wealth of African excellence – created by our forebears, and interpreted for display by a diverse team of international scholars, in order to educate all publics about the histories and cultural geographies in focus – filled you with immense pride.”
  • To the young South Asian heritage staff member in attendance at the entrance to the exhibition, I say: Thank you for your warm greeting and positive eye-contact, which expressed without words sincere gratitude for my exhibition visit as I exited Gallery 199. The genial way you conducted yourself is a credit to you and the institution you work for.”

Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara was initially displayed at The Met, New York, from January 2020 to October 2020 (with significant periods of temporary, intermittent closure in response to the Covid-19 pandemic). A recorded tour of the exhibition can be viewed online via the following link to the Met’s YouTube collection.

References and web links

LaGamma, Alisa (2020) Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara. New Haven and London: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/Sahel_Art_and_Empires_on_the_Shores_of_the_Sahara

LaGamma, Alisa, and Hakimah Abdul-Fattah (2020) Visualizing and Reconnecting Protagonists of a Sahelian Past [Blog] https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2020/visualizing-a-sahelian-past [Published online: September 10, 2020]

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