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Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa

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The Indian Ocean is known as Ratnakara in the ancient Sanskrit literature. Ratnakara means “the maker (creator) of gems”

We at the National Museum of African Art wish to tell an exceptional story. It is a story that begins when trade flourished in and around the Indian Ocean, sweeping up the East African coast and across the Arabian Peninsula. It is a story of diasporic influence and connecting cultures. It is a story that culminates in the extraordinary beauty found today in the arts of Oman and its influence on the peoples and cultures of eastern Africa.

With the generous and historic gift of $1.8M from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington, DC, the National Museum of African Art will be able to bring this wonderful story to its many visitors through various programming and exhibit related projects.

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Hamdan: Through the Gate of Tears

Hamdan: Through the Gate of Tears is a modern ballet celebrating one man’s journey from his homeland of Oman to East Africa. Oman, which lies on the southeast coastline of the Arabian Peninsula, is a land filled with Wadi’s deserts, beaches, and mountains. Using modern dance and contemporary Afro-Arabian music, Hamdan tells the story of his momentous decision to leave his country and set sail aboard a dhow headed to Zanzibar, for a better life. This ballet presents modern dance styles as it explores the folktale of Hamdan’s journey, steeped in the cultural traditions of Oman and East Africa. Ray Mercer’s choreography brings this impassioned tale to life. This Ballet was a special commission from the National Museum of African Art, created by the Howard University’s Department of Theatre Arts. Hamdan: Through the Gate of Tears had its world premiere on April 11-12, 2014 in Washington DC.

Qadar, the Opera

The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland hosted the Opera QADAR in December 2014. Composed by award-winning composer, playwright, and pianist Tony Small and commissioned by the National Museum of African Art, QADAR introduces western audiences to the music and culture of Oman through a seamless exchange of African and Arabic music genres. With Denyce Graves serving as Artist Consultant, Qadar: An Operetta for Children uses the vernacular of opera for a cultural exchange between Oman and Zanzibar.

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Backstory

The dances of the Omani people have been heavily influenced by the external influences of East Africa and Asia, which has resulted in a unique and vibrant form of cross-cultural expression. The Al Najoom troupe has been hailed as one of the most talented dance groups in Oman and they have been introducing diverse audiences to their heritage for over 15 years. Take a cultural journey across the globe and witness the legacy of the Al Najoom troupe as they employ song, music, and dance to pay homage to their Omani traditions. The dances are used for many purposes, including religious ceremonies and rituals of everyday life, and the Al Najoom troupe invites you to experience their culture through the joy of musical performance.

Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, Director of the Museum, and Ms. Nicole Shivers, Education Specialist, were then honored with an invitation from SQCC to visit Oman. During their travel in February of 2012, Dr. Cole and Ms. Shivers met with artistic and cultural leaders of Oman, including those at the Centre for Omani Traditional Music, the Opera House, the Muscat Festival, the Bait Al Zubair Museum, Bait Al Baranda Museum, and the Sultan Qaboos Centre of Islamic Culture in Oman. This trip deepened their appreciation of Omani culture.

Upon returning from their travels, Dr. Cole and Ms. Shivers expressed a commitment to producing a series of events and programs celebrating the extraordinary cultural arts of Oman and its ties East Africa.

Under Ms. Shiver’s leadership, the programs developed with SQCC support will provide Museum visitors a rare chance to experience the power and beauty of this historical and cultural relationship.

The National Museum of African Art is planning a series of public programs dedicated to the celebration of this historic connection. Through collaborative performing arts, a lecture series, cross-cultural exchange, hands-on art workshops, film screenings, mural painting and additional performances, the Museum wishes to tell the story of Oman’s connection with the East African coast.

In the News

VOA – Iran interview with Education specialist and Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean project lead, Nicole Shivers. The interview, recorded at the National Museum of African Art, is translated into Farsi language and was aired in early December 2014.

Washington City Paper Entertainment Guide – Washington City Paper
Oman’s Million-Dollar Gift Aims to Connect ‘Gems of Indian Ocean’ – Washington Diplomat
$1.8 million gift will let Museum of African Art explore Omani-East African links – Washington Post
Smithsonian’s African Art Museum Gets $1.8 Million From Oman – CBS
SMITHSONIAN’S AFRICAN ART MUSEUM GETS $1.8 M FROM OMAN – The Sub-Saharan Explorer
National Museum of African Art Receives $1.8 Million From Oman – Philanthropy News Digest
Second Glance – Washington Post

Resources

Music

Dhow Countries Music Academy
Omani Centre for Traditional Music

Results

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This VIP dinner of over 150 guests, on April 2014, celebrated the opening of “Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean” and the sponsorship of the project by the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center.
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As part of the Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean project, the National Museum of African Art hosted an Arabic summer language and culture workshop as well as Swahili Music concerts. During the months of June and July 2014, Anna Mwalagho and the Afrofloetry band performed traditional Taarab music and over twenty-five students learned Arabic and Swahili as part of free cultural workshops.