Years in the making, the major exhibition Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara has brought together masterpieces from Niger, Senegal, Mali, and dozens of lending institutions to highlight the rich artistic traditions of this region. We talked to Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge of the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas about the show’s ideas. We also discussed how the exhibition store showcases the vibrancy of contemporary creativity, transporting you through the Sahel’s visual and musical traditions as well as its tastes and literary narratives.
Could you broadly summarize the show, its themes, and what you want people to take away from it?
This exhibition is an especially ambitious project for us here at The Met. Not only did we borrow works from institutions and private collections across Europe and North America, but we also brought over national treasures from their countries of origin so that national museums of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal are represented by some of the star works in our lineup.
Arab travelers from North Africa thought of the Sahara as a vast ocean, and conceived of the lands along its southern coast as a shore. This region first became linked with Europe via North Africa at the end of the seventh century through trans-Saharan trade—and it really becomes a nexus of global interaction at that point in history. We are positioning the artworks in the show within the many-layered history of this region that gave rise to legendary states—ancient Ghana, ancient Mali, Songhay, and Segu.
I have to ask about the megalith, which took quite an effort to get across the ocean.
The signature work that greets you at the point of entry into Sahel is literally a regional landmark that we transported across the Atlantic from Dakar by sea. It’s a massive monument made out of a ferrous stone in the region of Senegambia around the end of the seventh or beginning of the eighth century. It was no mean feat getting it here because it weighs over 8,000 pounds! Just getting it physically through the building from the loading dock was a herculean effort by our riggers.
It really transports you to the region and introduces you to a landmark that will be unfamiliar to everybody who visits the exhibition, except for the handful of archaeologists who are aware of this tradition. I hope people will be inspired to go take a visit after seeing it in our galleries.
Why don’t we talk about textiles for a moment, beautiful examples of which are all over the show, as well as in the exhibition shop?
It was very important to present textiles throughout the body of the exhibition. We open the first section with the earliest textile known from the region, which was unearthed by archaeologists in present-day Niger in a burial mound that dates to the 6th or 7th century. When people think about African art, they generally think of wood sculpture—something that has been privileged by artists who were fascinated by abstraction of the human form beginning in the early 20th century. But if you spend time in this part of the world, you realize that textiles are the dominant form of aesthetic that remains pervasive. People’s lives are filled with textiles to adorn the environments that they live in and to clothe themselves. Fashion is really the ultimate form of expression in this region.
Because the Sahel was such a dry, arid climate, we have more examples of ancient textiles from this region than we have for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. And textile specialists who have studied these archeological textiles have said that they think that this area was the point of development of important textile technology that was then disseminated to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. So this is an ancient art form. The weaving of cotton in this area had an important impact on the rest of West Africa.
What kind of technology?
The classic weaving technique is one of producing narrow bands of fabric on a horizontal loom; the weavers were and continue to be men, while women embellish the fabric through dyeing. The palette of weavers was either the natural hues of cotton, or indigo. So you will see a lot of that among the early textiles that we have in the exhibition—deep blues and cream colors. Another major form of textiles identified with present-day Mali is that of mud cloth, a type of resist dyeing with natural pigment in which the men weave the canvas cloth upon which women use very complex techniques of resist dyeing with mud to create very elaborate symbolic decorative patterns.
Speaking of textiles, I want to talk a bit artist Aïssa Dione, whom you helped connect us with and whose textile pieces are currently for sale in the exhibition shop. How did you get to know her work?
Aïssa is a critically acclaimed, highly gifted, creative person on many different fronts. She is especially recognized as an accomplished contemporary designer, not only in Senegal, but also in Europe, especially in Paris. She has emphasized sourcing cotton from the region and working with historical designs to produce textiles made in a plant that she revived a number of years ago in Senegal. It’s a very impressive operation. She’s really in control of the process from beginning to end. And it’s reflected in the quality of the work.
From the end result, for sure.
Her creations are exquisite, and range from accessories to interior decor. And those of us who watch the fashion scene are constantly impressed with the new designs she is coming out with on an annual basis.
Let’s talk about music, because visitors hear music in the galleries as well as at the listening station in the shop. Is music an essential component for an exhibition of African art?
There never has been a more inextricable link between the visual arts and the performing arts than in the art of the Sahel. At the courts of the leaders in this region, one of the most significant members of the entourage of the leader was his bard through whom history was relayed. The Mande epic tradition continues to be a living one to this day, and some of the world’s most famous musicians who hail from Africa are Malian and Senegalese performers who come from the tradition of these court historians. They’re from griot families (the term that we use for “bard”).
The most famous of the Sahelian epics is that of Sundiata, the story of the founder of the Malian empire in the 13th century. And it is a narrative that is omnipresent in contemporary Malian culture—there are excerpts from the Sundiata Epic in Mali’s national anthem! And it’s part of the repertoire of every major Malian musician. So in the exhibition, we brought together recordings of some of the region’s most famous performing artists on the international scene and their take on the Sundiata Epic, as well as some of the field recordings that researchers have documented over past generations. At the exhibition’s finale is a spectacular ensemble of members of the Segu court: regal seated female figures and their male consort represented by a bold equestrian warrior. In order to experience this display as you would have in situ, we present them with the music of Malian kora masters Toumani Diabaté and Bellaké Sissoko.
It’s crucial to the story?
Yes—and people who know very little about the Sahel and its cultures will have heard of some of its superstar performers: Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour. They are Grammy Award winners, but also have larger-than-life standing in their own society back at home, because they bridge the world of entertainment and also are charged with content that is at once literary, historic, and concerned with social values.
We are delighted to offer some spice rubs and condiments as well as Pierre Thiam’s cookbook in the exhibition shop. Tell us a little bit about how food fits into this story.
One of the world’s great cuisines is what you find when you visit Senegal. Pierre Thiam is somebody who, like these superstar musicians that we’re featuring in the show, draws on classic staples of regional cuisine, then adapts them. He’s a citizen of New York City as well as of Senegal and has been critically acclaimed here with his fabulous new restaurant that is part of the Africa Center at the northern end of Fifth Avenue.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
It’s wonderful that in the bookstore, you have brought together some of the classic texts that I myself referred to when I was doing research for the exhibition catalogue. And then I just love the fact that you have children’s books on the important narratives that are part of storytelling in the Sahel. So I think that there’s something for everyone, and it’s a great opportunity to see the exhibition and then explore deeper into the content in different ways.
No matter your age?
Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara has been extended until August 23. Buy the exhibition catalogue at The Met Store today.