Installation view of Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art 2020, photo by Anna-Marie Kellen)

Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara assembles a tremendous collection of cultural heritage, spanning 1,300 years between the pre-Islamic period and the 19th century. The Sahel, which translates to “shore” in Arabic, is the geographic terrain directly below the Sahara. Eschewing Sahelian history that begins with European colonization, the exhibition focuses on the historic empires of Ghana (300 — 1200), Mali (1230 — 1600), Songhay (1464 — 1591), and Segu (1640 — 1861). These kingdoms thrived long before French colonial rule (1895 — 1960) and the present-day borders of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Chad.

Given the rarity of these artworks being gathered in the same exhibition space, Sahel is a paramount exhibition that required a collaborative effort. The show was curated by the Met’s Alisa LaGamma, with support from Yaëlle Biro, Oumy Mbaye, Mouhamet Traoré, and Hakimah Abdul-Fattah. National collections from the region — in Niger, Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania — loaned artworks to the Met in order to make such an expansive show possible.

Installation view of Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art 2020, photo by Anna-Marie Kellen)

Spread across multiple galleries, Sahel is organized into overarching themes: Sahelian Narratives Past and Present; Epic Poetry and Architecture; Ancient Ghana and Soninke Diasporas; Trade and Islam; Ancient Mali; Archaeology; Dogon Peoples and Songhai Empire; Emergence of the Fulani and the Umarian Conequest; The Bamana Segu State. Now is a pertinent moment for a grand survey of Sahelian visual and material culture, as the region has made international headlines for the migrant crisis, numerous wars, and ecological concerns surrounding the desertification of once arable land. The exhibition addresses these concerns, implicitly and explicitly, through reflections on the longer history of trans-Saharan migration, transcultural networks, and contemporary cultural stewardship. Although there are hundreds of works on display, many stand out as particularly exciting to behold: a monumental stone work, the “Megalith” from the Kaolack region in Senegal from the 8th–9th century, would have originally been accompanied by over a thousand other similarly towering monuments along the Gambia River.

Figural terracottas from ancient Middle Niger are stars of the exhibition, as well. One is the “Reclining Figure,” preserved within the Musée National du Mali, Bamako, due to efforts to protect Malian antiquities, begun in 1993, and a national education campaign that soon followed. Other terracottas on display are from US and European collections, with presumably more problematic histories. Due to colonial looting and contemporary iconoclastic acts, excavated terracottas that circulate through institutional and private collections, especially in European and American collections, maintain complex provenances — making their display a landmark moment that is at once still wrought with political tensions.

Middle-Niger civilization, Jenne-jo, Mali, “Reclining Figure” (12th–14th Century), terracotta (image and photography courtesy Musée National du Mali)

Although the exhibition’s timeline expands much further beyond the relatively short period of colonial rule, colonialism itself remains the central reason why these objects exist in Western collections. The release of the “Macron report” in 2018 energized grassroots activism and institutional dialogue on the topic of looted African art. Despite growing mainstream attention, Western institutions have moved exceptionally slowly at returning the stolen objects to their rightful homes. Sahel brings this issue back into focus in the context of the Met, as many of the objects from Western collections on display were the result of colonial-era looting. Partnerships with African museums are a step in the right direction; however, power dynamics are astoundingly clear: African museums are still expected to loan artworks to Western institutions, such as the Met, where looted objects from their countries remain in permanent collections.

Sahel presents an abundant display of colorfully designed West African tunics, decorative objects, Islamic manuscripts, varied representations of Sahelian adobo architecture, and a video detailing restorations of the Great Mosque of Djenneé. Moreover, the deeply informative wall texts share stories that frame the objects, crafting narratives that grapple with Arabic written sources, oral histories, cosmologies, and archaeological studies.

Rao/Nguiguela, Senegal, “Pectoral (the Rao Pectoral)” (12th–13th Century), gold (image courtesy Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire, Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, Senegal; photo by Antoine Tempé)

Originally from Ancient Ghana, but excavated in what is modern-day northwestern Senegal, the “Pectoral” (the Rao Pectoral) is a shiny gold decorative object from a 12th-century burial site. This artwork, also featured on the cover of the exhibition catalogue, exemplifies trans-Saharan aesthetic and material connections. Arab geographers at the time referred to Ancient Ghana as the “land of gold” and the arabesque designs are presumably influenced by Muslim traders.

An exhibition of this scale — so rich in material and visual culture, covering such a wide expanse of space, time, and forms — encourages a wide range of perspectives on the artworks displayed. The political implications of Sahel likewise extend beyond those of international diplomacy; feminist and queer possibilities are embedded into the show, such as in an 18th century Dogon wooden sculpture of a seated figure.

On Twitter, Imara Jones, creator of TransLash Media, connected the work to ongoing efforts aimed at affirming the value of Black trans lives, raising key questions about contemporary social justice movements in relation to ancient histories.

A tweet by Imara Jones, used with permission (original tweet here)

Classical African sculpture is often imagined outside the sphere of contemporary issues surrounding gender and sexuality, despite the ways in which femininity, masculinity, and representations that transcend the Western gender and sex binaries are present in the works themselves. While the Met still uses outdated terminology to describe the figure, in queer activist spaces the figure would be identified as intersex or transgender. The figure’s breasts and phallus remind us that representations of bodies like this are neither new nor limited to Western art. In fact, the binaristically understood “woman” and “man” characteristics on the figure are rooted in Dogon cosmologies, in which humans are born with masculine and feminine attributes. Engaging Sahel: Art and Empires is enlivened by reckoning with the contemporary resonances of cultural heritage.

More than merely a grand survey of art from the region, Sahel is instead a vast collection of objects that mobilizes countless discussions.

Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara continues through October 26 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by the Met’s Alisa LaGamma with support from assistant curator Yaëlle Biro, the University Cheikh Anta Diop’s Oumy Mbaye and Mouhamet Traoré, and research associate Hakimah Abdul-Fattah.

Alexandra M. Thomas is a PhD student in History of Art, African American Studies, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University. Her research interests include: global modern and contemporary...