Mansa Musa is one of the more colorful characters populating the exhibition, “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara,” which surveys the vibrant visual culture that flourished in a region that has remained peripheral to larger art historical narratives. Sahel is an Arabic word meaning “shore,” in this case suggesting the far “shore” of the Sahara Desert, a vast, inhospitable ocean of sand separating the Mediterranean world from sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the countries of the Sahel include not just Mali, but also Senegal, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso in its western region, the focus of this exhibition.
The region was a cauldron of empire, though the curators use the word “empire” with reservations. Among the cultures and kingdoms to arise here were ancient Ghana, Mali, Songhay and Bamana Segu, with various migrations and periods of decay and coalescence. Epic narratives, still circulating today, were passed down, including the “Sunjata,” a core poem of African oral literature that recounts the life of Mansa Musa’s ancestor Sundiata Keita, who founded the Mali empire. And, rather like the various empires that flourished in China and the Mediterranean, visual ideas were transferred across the centuries and from one kingdom to another, as new political elites sought to foster legitimacy and connection to the past.
The exhibition (organized by curator Alisa LaGamma) includes some 200 objects, the oldest of which dates to before 2000 B.C., offering a powerful sense of immersion in these successive and overlapping cultures while deftly navigating the slightly awkward idea of “empire.” In a museum context, the word is essentially an honorific, suggesting a coherent political entity that is sufficiently rich and lasting to create its own visual propaganda. But the word also suggests a top-down governance by a self-perpetuating leadership that rules autocratically, and it’s not clear that this political description fits the more loosely knit kingdoms of the Sahel. Rather, the curators argue that the empires of the Sahel were multilayered, often functioning more like coalitions or networks of related social groups.
That fluidity, perhaps, accounts for some of the distinctive creative characteristics on view. The malleability and impermanence of clay, for example, is key to understanding the beguiling visual culture these groups left behind. Architecture made of clay was meant to be in a continual state of transition. The protruding wooden posts that give buildings like the Great Mosque of Jenne its distinctive, slightly bristling appearance were put there to allow the surface to be recoated with earth as the elements wore away its sinuous, vertical forms. And so buildings were perpetuated by collective action — the community coming together to remake them — that suggests a dynamic tension between permanence and change.
Some of the most spectacular works are terra-cotta pieces made of fired clay by the Middle Niger civilization in the 12th to 14th centuries. Among them are several seated male figures, who are depicted with a thrilling refusal to heroicize their body language. They sit with their legs folded sideways, their hands resting casually on their thighs or calves, often with a sense of quiet engagement, as if they’re listening, or daydreaming. Women were known for working with clay, so it’s reasonable to suppose that these curiously gentle male figures were made by female artists, who found in their subjects’ body language a daring alternative to how men might have represented themselves.
Clay, however, is also fragile, and our knowledge of the empires of the Sahel is limited by both the natural decay of the materials used and man-made destruction. The first written record of these cultures came with the arrival of Arabic, as traders from the north and east made inroads into the region. Before that, archaeology carries the narrative, but looting, climate change and amateur digging has effaced much of what we might have learned.
The arrival of Islam in the late 7th century was organic and peaceful, with Muslims and non-Muslims living in relative harmony for centuries. More militant forms of religion began to flourish in the 18th and 19th centuries, creating internal tensions often exacerbated by resistance to a 65-year period of French colonial rule. In 2012, Ansar Dine, an al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed control of parts of northern Mali, imposed sharia law in Timbuktu and destroyed a historic Sufi tomb before being forced out by a French military operation, but the region remains unstable.
Those tensions, however, seem remote from the work on view here, which has a curious sense of ease and settled composure. A recurring equestrian figure, spanning centuries of cultural production, may represent figures of political or military importance, but they speak more about dignity than power. Small variations in the position of hands and arms, or the elongation of the figures, gives them a range of intensity and formality, and they’re more evocative than many of the formulaic horse-and-rider images one finds in European art. A reclining figure, with an androgynous body, suggests a casual comfort and luxury, and even though the damaged terra-cotta is missing its head, one senses it represents contented well-being.
In the last room of the exhibition, 10 sculptural figures made by the Bamana peoples (mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries) show the full range of creative expression that emerged from centuries of exchange and development among these empires. It is an astonishing display, with seated and equestrian figures, musicians and a mother and child, all quietly, but insistently present, full of life but slightly remote, too, suggesting a vital sense of continuity with the seated male dreamers made more than a half-millennium earlier.
Encyclopedic museums like the Met often can’t exhibit art that doesn’t fall on the old European map of the world without putting it in a European context. African art is understood as an inspiration to European artists, judged by the standards of European commitment to one form of visual verisimilitude or posited as an “other” that reinforces cultural difference.
The Sahel wasn’t disconnected from the larger world, including Europe, and for centuries before the Spanish landed in America, it was the main supplier of gold to the world market. But this exhibition lets the visitor exist within the Sahel on its own terms, and as you encounter those 10 Bamana people figures at the end, there’s an invigorating sense that although the art may be worthy of anything that empire has produced, it embodies ideas and meanings deeper than empire. It gets at a persistence of culture and place that transcends political entities no matter how they are styled.
Sahel: Art and Empire on the Shores of the Sahara Through May 10 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. metmuseum.org.