World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean, installation view of Qur'an manuscripts on display in "In the Presence of Words" at Krannert Art Museum, 2017. Photo by Rick Danzl.

The 130 or so objects — some of which have never been shown in the United States — tell of the reach of Swahili arts and culture into the African interior and across the Indian Ocean, said Purpura, who along with former University of Illinois art history Professor Prita Meier organized "World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean."

"It's like a mirror into the arts of this region of cultural influence," Purpura said. "It's about mobility, connectivity — the movement of people, objects and ideas. Some of that connectivity is an exchange between people motivated by commercial interests. So, it's also a story about the politics of trade and of empire."

The exhibition also "asks visitors to think, 'Where does Africa begin and end?'"

"After all, Africa and the Swahili coast have been global for millennia," said Purpura, Krannert's curator of global African art.

The Indian Ocean has long been a major trade highway between East Africa, the Arab world and Asia — the exhibition emphasizes that and the influences those cultures have had on one another.

The items on display range from large architectural elements such as lintels, or intricately carved door frames, to stunning jewelry, much of it made with silver, gold and ivory including chunky bracelets worn by men.

The exhibition is organized around six themes, or sections.

For example, "In the Presence of Words" recognizes the importance of language and devotional texts, among them illuminated Qur'ans, or Korans, and other Arabic manuscripts from Kenya...

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