$1.8 million gift will let Museum of African Art explore Omani-East African links

The National Museum of African Art announced a $1.8 million gift Tuesday, the largest in the museum’s history, from the sultanate of Oman to explore linkages between Omani and East African arts and culture.

The multi-year program, “Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa,” will begin in 2014 and include visual and performing arts, exhibitions, workshops and lectures.

The gift recognizes “the borderless character of the arts,” said Hunaina Sultan Al-Mughairy, Oman’s ambassador to the United States. “It is layered to showcase the historical links between the cultures and people of the Indian Ocean rim.” She said the program will be “fun, educational and profound.”

“The funding will make it possible to tell an amazing story” of trade and diasporic influence, said museum director Johnnetta Betsch Cole. It will include traditional and newly commissioned dance and music performances by Howard University, along with a commissioned opera with mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who was on hand for the announcement.

There will also be a lecture series with Omani artists and scholars, and workshops exposing U.S. teachers to Omani art. A Kennedy Center performance will showcase Swahili traditions in spoken words and performing arts.


The Africa Underground program at the National Museum of African Art - Smithsonian Institution from last July. (Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)

The project, two years in the making, began when the museum was looking for groups from the Mideast and North Africa to perform and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington responded. Cole said the project will inspire other partnerships and make clear that there is “a place on the Arabian Peninsula that has been intimately connected with East Africa.” She said it’s a step toward moving the stories of “cultural connections in Africa beyond the walls of the Museum of African Art.”

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