CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The first major traveling exhibition in the United States on the arts of the Swahili coast of Africa will premiere at Krannert Art Museum this fall.
“World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean” looks at the movement of objects and people between the Swahili (east African) coast, the port towns on the western Indian Ocean, and the eastern and central regions of Africa. Key to the exhibition is to consider their cultural and aesthetic influences on one another. It will include objects loaned from the National Museums of Kenya and the Bait Al Zubair Museum in Oman that will be exhibited for the first time in the U.S., as well as artwork loans from 15 additional museums and significant private collections.
The exhibition opens with a public reception at 6 p.m. Aug. 31 and will be at the museum through March 24, 2018. The exhibition will then travel to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in summer 2018, and then to the Fowler Museum at UCLA in fall 2018.
The exhibition “asks the question, ‘Where does Africa begin and end?’ After all, Africa and the Swahili coast have been global for millennia,” said Allyson Purpura, Krannert Art Museum’s curator of global African art, and co-curator of the exhibition with Prita Meier, a former University of Illinois faculty member who is now assistant professor of Art History at New York University.
Purpura said the Indian Ocean has long been a major trade highway between east Africa, the Arab world and Asia, and the exhibition emphasizes the interconnectivity of those cultures and the influence they have had on one another.
The items on display range from large architectural elements to small pieces of jewelry. The exhibition is organized around six themes. “In the Presence of Words” occupies the central space in the gallery to recognize the importance of language and devotional texts in Swahili culture. The Swahili town of Siyu, for example, was historically a great center for Islamic learning, Purpura said.
This section includes illuminated Qur’ans and other Arabic manuscripts from museums and private collections in Kenya. It also includes amuletic jewelry designed to hold passages from the Qur’an or medicinal inscriptions to protect the wearer, and everyday objects such as bicycle mud flaps with Swahili sayings or proverbs written on them.
“Architecture of the Port” features intricately carved lintels and door frames that reflect the motifs of the different cultures exerting influence on the area. The influence of India appears in vegetal decorations and arched doorways. Swahili, Omani and Bajuni culture is apparent in doorways with straight lintels and geometric motifs.
“Between Land and Sea: Objects in Motion” includes “pieces that tell the story of Swahili arts as a meeting ground of African and Indian Ocean aesthetic traditions.” This section also uses sumptuous objects to show how diplomacy was closely linked to commercial interests and the giving of gifts. Among the objects in this section of the exhibition are jewelry, ivory horns, staffs and a silk coat given to diplomats by the Sultan of Zanzibar.
“Trading the Gaze: Photography on the Swahili Coast” is a section on studio photography in the 1950s and ‘60s, and also features historic postcards from the region.
“At Home in the World: Swahili Interiors” shows everyday objects from the home, including embellished spoons, vessels from Oman, furnishings, an intricately woven mat from Zanzibar and majestic chairs.
“Ocean of Adornment” features silver jewelry, amulets, a silk tunic and an array of sandals.
Purpura and Meier spent three summers traveling to Kenya, Zanzibar, and Oman to look at collections in national museums and the homes of private collectors, and negotiate loan agreements for objects they wanted to include in the exhibition.
Krannert Art Museum received a $325,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to pay for the shipping and crating of more than 150 objects, cleaning them, designing the displays and custom mounts for some objects, and creating educational materials. They also were awarded a 60,000 NEH planning grant to support the foundational research related to the exhibition.
An exhibition catalogue co-authored by Meier and Purpura is scheduled to be published in the early winter. It will be the first interdisciplinary look at Swahili visual arts and material culture and their reach beyond the east African coast. The book will contain original research and essays from prominent scholars who study the region, its art, and its connections around the world.