CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — By the time an exhibition on the arts of the Swahili coast of Africa opens at Krannert Art Museum in fall 2017, several years’ worth of work will have gone into selecting the items for the show and bringing them to the U.S.
The exhibition, “World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean,” will be an unprecedented look at the arts of the region and how they reflect the interconnectivity of the coastal areas of East Africa (including Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Somalia), the major islands of the Indian Ocean, and Oman to the northeast, said Allyson Purpura, Krannert Art Museum’s curator of global African art, and Prita Meier, a University of Illinois art history professor.
Purpura and Meier made their third trip to Africa this summer. They have spent the past three summers visiting Kenya, Tanzania and Oman, looking at the collections in those countries’ national museums and in the homes of private collectors, and negotiating loan agreements for the objects they want to include in the exhibition.
Krannert Art Museum recently received a $325,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities that will pay for the shipping and crating of nearly 200 objects, as well as for designing the displays, developing interactive technology for the exhibition and creating educational materials. It is the second NEH grant that the museum received in connection with the exhibition. The first was a $65,000 planning grant.
The exhibition is “a story of mobility,” Purpura said, looking at the movement of objects and people between places along the Swahili coast and how they have influenced one another.
“It will tell the story of multiple hands and multiple possible origins,” she said.
Not all the objects can be identified as coming from a specific place, but they will look familiar to people from various places in the region.
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They are closely connected to one another because the Indian Ocean was a major trade highway, the “cradle of globalization,” Meier said, with objects being traded between East Africa, the Arab world and Asia. In addition, the area represented a major community of Muslims going back to the ninth century, she said.
Meier and Purpura both have expertise in the region and have spent years doing research there. Meier specializes in the visual culture and built environment of Africa and the Indian Ocean. Purpura works on Islamic knowledge and practice in Zanzibar and the western Indian Ocean region.
The two have worked closely with national museums to identify objects meaningful in terms of the cultural heritage of the region. They’ve also looked for items of “visual splendor” – those that are beautifully crafted, with great artistic value or which are singular, unusual objects.
The objects that will be included in the exhibition range in size from small amulets to be worn around the neck to large architectural elements such as door frames and lintels. They’ve found a collection of beautifully illuminated manuscripts, with notes handwritten in calligraphy, in the possession of an elderly man in Mombasa; elegantly carved spoons cast in copper in the national museum in Oman that may be templates for wooden carved spoons they’ve seen on the East African coast; and high platform sandals made of carved wood and inlaid with ivory in geometric patterns, also in Oman.
There have been significant obstacles to borrowing objects from the area. For example, Purpura and Meier hoped to borrow a large ivory horn from a museum in Nairobi. They were unable to do so because of the restrictions on transportation of ivory, in an effort to reduce the poaching of elephants. They hope to borrow a similar horn that is made of brass. Obtaining a loan agreement is a slow-moving process often hampered by politics.
Purpura and Meier hope to have the exhibition objects at the museum by next spring. The NEH grant will support cleaning of the items and designing custom mounts for those that have been in storage or in private collections. The mounts will be sent back with the objects to the countries from which they came, as will professional photographs of the objects for publications accompanying the exhibition.
Purpura and Meier said the curators in the Swahili region are very knowledgeable about the artwork and its cultural significance, but lack the resources that most U.S. museums have. Providing the custom mounts and photographs and having the objects cleaned by professional conservators is a way to express gratitude for the loan of the objects.
The exhibition will travel to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in summer 2018, and then to the Fowler Museum at UCLA in fall 2018.