Swahili, the Pulse of Life at the Crossroads

Posted June 14, 2018 7:18 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — It’s a huge word, “Africa.” Only six characters long, but with inflections, extensions and complications that go on and on. Even people who say it often can forget that reality. The National Museum of African Art is here to remind us of it with a pearl of an exhibition — cool, glowing, somewhat opaque — called “World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean.”

You’ll notice that “Africa” doesn’t appear in the title, and its absence makes interesting sense. Swahili, or Kiswahili, is a language, one that seems to have originated in East Africa, where the continent meets the Indian Ocean. But that language belongs to no particular ethnic group or place. It’s the product of a crossroads culture in which Africa, South Asia and the Middle East blend. To historians it’s a centuries-long occupation of East African soil by seafaring merchants and middlemen from foreign lands.

The show asks us to go with the “crossroads” idea. If the globalist trends in art history of the past two decades have done nothing more, they’ve at least nudged us away from narrow, nationalist thinking about identity. They’ve allowed us to see how pigeonholing culture on the old one-tribe-one-art model creates a “them” as opposed to “us,” basically a colonialist model.

And he show shakes up that model with corrective evidence: some 160 pieces of Swahili Coast art, all of it instructive, most of it eye-and-mind-absorbing, some of it really magnificent. For millenniums, the port cities of East Africa — in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique — have been centers of long-distance trade and multidirectional cultural exchange. To the west, they were connected, by caravan, with central Africa; to the east, by ship, with India, China and Japan; to the north, with an Arab world that included Oman, Persia and Yemen; and to the south, via roundabout shipping routes, with Europe and the Americas.

Much of the commerce was fruitful; some of it — a massive traffic in slavery — was morally indefensible. As trade moved, new populations filtered into East Africa. So did new religions, notably Islam. Languages developed there, including Swahili — the name derives from an Arabic word for “coast” or “edge” — which seems to have functioned initially as a kind of maritime Esperanto.

Art absorbed and reflected all this. Traditional art history presents art as a succession of types and styles with traceable sources, logical trajectories and cooked-up labels (Renaissance, Baroque). But the Swahili story plays out by other rules, which can easily read as no rules.

For one thing, not much of it survived. Wood rotted away in the salt-air environment. Stone, awkward to transport, was not favored for sculpture. During cycles of change in fashion, economics and political fortunes, metalwork was melted down and recycled. One of the oldest objects in the exhibition, a giant wood and animal-skin drum now preserved in the Mombasa Fort Jesus Museum in Kenya, dates from the 17th century. But nearly everything else, apart from a few tombstones, is much later, from what we think of as the modern age.

And much of the work, being hybrid, doesn’t readily respond to the kinds of questions art history likes to sleuth out and nail down, about origins, intended function, and cultural identity. A high-backed “throne of power” from 19th-century Zanzibar is one of the exhibition’s eye catchers, with fiber-caned seats and inlays of ivory and mother-of-pearl. In addition, it’s a marvel of practicality: lightweight and easily disassembled for travel. But how “Swahili” is it? How distinctive in design? Over the centuries, similar chairs have appeared in Europe, India, Egypt and Iran. None is the original in a broad historical sense; yet all belong to a unique time and place.

Determination of use also has to take context into account. Among the show’s several textile items are three exquisitely hand-embroidered white cotton cylindrical caps known as “kofia,” one dating to the 19th century. The kofia is a standard element of male apparel on the Swahili Coast. To many wearers it is an outward indicator of devotion to Islam.

But, worn by both Muslims and non-Muslims, it can serve less pious ends, too. It can be a statement of political allegiance or social status or dress-for-success chic. As the anthropologist Janet McIntosh notes in the catalog, the kofia can even be worn by outsiders to the larger society, in a spirit of defiance and protest.

Over and over, the exhibition offers examples of apparent certainties being scrambled. Makonde mask carvers from Mozambique and Tanzania depict ancestral spirits and turbaned traders with equal skill and relish. Written language, which saturates the show like a scent, occupies, to judge from a cloudlike cluster of hand-copied Qurans, an elite aesthetic realm of its own, until we see that it’s also used to detail snappy maxims on bicycle mud flaps. (“Trying hard brings good fortune,” reads one; “All’s cool, my friend,” reads another.) A lot of museum shows make self-conscious gestures toward inclusion, but this one takes big-picture inclusivity, with its contradictions and confusions, as a primary subject. It does something else too: It evokes, to the extent that any selection of uprooted objects can, the pulse of lived life in East Africa’s cosmopolitan port cities, with their markets, mosques and fantasy-selling photo studios, and their polycultural populations decked out in Central Asian silks, Somali silver amulets and sky-high platform sandals from who knows where.

Architectural fragments — probably the hardest materials for a museum to make visual sense of — are highlights here. Several carved wood door and window elements, on loan from the Lamu Fort Museum in Kenya, are on view, and in the catalog Athman Hussein, a former curator there, pegs them for what they were: advertisements of patrician privilege in a ruthlessly stratified culture. At the same time, he directs our attention to their beauties, particularly those of an intact 18th- or 19th-century door frame of African mahogany with carved Quran passages running down its sides and Gujarati sunbursts beaming on its lintel.

The exhibition as a whole — organized by Allyson Purpura, senior curator at the Krannert Art Museum in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois — which originated the show — and Prita Meier, an assistant professor of art history at New York University, with Kevin D. Dumouchelle of the National Museum of African Art — is at something of a disadvantage in the museum’s underground space, which leads directly to the adjoining Freer and Sackler Galleries. That means the show has two main entry points and has to deliver essentially the same information at both. It does so, though inevitably at some cost in terms of concentration and pacing.

Still, it works. In this and other ways the curators have dealt forthrightly with awkwardness, including the awkwardness of history. They’ve avoided the superficial clarity that many museums bring to historical subjects. In an installation judicious in its use of texts they give prominent space to an account of the African-Arab slave trade that bankrolled so much Swahili Coast luxe, an ethical fact that no accurate account of the past can now leave out.

And if, in the end, the show’s take on Swahili culture feels diffuse and unresolved, emitting only a clouded glow, it also opens a view of the larger realities of history itself well worth having.