Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara

Spending a large proportion of your working life visiting museal spaces to review, research and critique fine artworks and artefact assemblages sourced from around the world is a very rewarding and immensely fulfilling experience. So, despite the past year featuring the most challenging and traumatic months creatives, researchers and educators linked to museums and galleries have ever had to endure, it felt right to take time to focus on one of the major exhibition highlights that stands out in my memory as a positive beacon of brilliance within an otherwise bleak and tumultuous period for the arts and heritage sectors world-wide.

Exhibition view, taken from the entrance looking towards the main group of sculptures displayed against the rear wall. A series of 9th-14th century terracotta and bronze equestrian sculptures from Mali and Niger created the effect of an ‘honour guard’ along the central walkway through the gallery. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

To conclude my sixth successful year of blogging via Museum Geographies, I am pleased to share my reflections and a selection of images captured and documented during a February 2020 visit to the Met150 exhibition ‘Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara’ – displayed in Gallery 199 within the west-central zone of New York’s expansive Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue, New York.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, main entrance on 5th Avenue, New York. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon

This exhibition was brought together by a diverse, international research team led by Lubumbashi-born scholar Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge of the Met’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The other contributing academics included: Yaëlle Biro, Associate Curator of African art at the Met; Mamadou Cissé, Chief of the Cultural Mission of Kangaba, Direction nationale du patrimoine culturel du Mali, Koulikoro Region, Mali; David C. Conrad, Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Oswego; Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Director, Institute of African Studies, Columbia University New York; Roderick McKintosh, Professor of Anthropology, Yale University, New Haven; Paulo de Moraes Farias FBA, Professor of History, University of Birmingham, UK; Giulia Paoletti, Assistant Professor of Art, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; and Ibrahima Thiaw, Associate Professor of Archaeology at the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN), University Cheikh Anta Diop of Dakar, Senegal.

Arranged in chronological and thematic sequences spanning c. 1300 years, the exhibition presented an extensive collection of art objects, architectural images, archaeological findings and literary texts through which to discuss the changing socio-economic, political and cultural landscapes of the Sahel, from the pre-Islamic era through to the 19th century.

“Staff: Seated Male Figure, Dogon peoples”; Mali, 16th-17th century. Copper alloy and iron. Height approx. 76 cm (30 inches). A photograph showing the Mosque of Jenne, Mali, is displayed on the wall. Photo: Carol Ann Dixon.

Geographical and Historical Scope

The Sahel covers a vast semi-arid region of continental Africa, extending across the southern ‘shores’ of the Sahara Desert, from the West African Atlantic coast through to the Eritrean Red Sea coast. Geographically, the area encompasses more than ten nation states, including extensive swathes of Senegal, Mauritania, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, southern Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, and Eritrea. Historically and culturally, the region also has a heritage legacy that connects to the artistic traditions of the ancient empires of (among others) Wagadu (ca. 300-1200), Takrur (ca. 400-1100), Gao (ca. 650-1250), Mali (ca. 1230-1600), Jolof (ca. 1350-1550) and Songhay (ca. 1460-1590).

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