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.
The Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa project is proud to present Sailors and Daughters: Early Photography and the Indian Ocean World, the Museum’s first-ever online exhibit made possible by a gift from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center. Sailors and Daughters reveals the expansive maritime societies of Zanzibar, the east African coast, and Persian Gulf. From the 1840’s, cameras traced the international migrations of traders, sailors, sons, and daughters through Indian Ocean ports, continuing trade that dates back over five millennia. For instance, a highlight of the exhibition brings together early images by German photographer Hermann Burkhardt of Oman in 1904, which resemble photographs captured in Stone Town. East African cities flourished as hubs of both land and sea trade routes, which extended to the central African interior, the Middle East, Indian Ocean islands, western India and the Far East.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, one of the world’s most celebrated literary figures, discusses the art of storytelling, ideas of cultural belonging, and personal experiences of growing up in East Africa with renowed authors MG Vassanji and Abdulrazak Gurnah. The discussion is moderated by Gaurav Desai, Ph.D., professor of English and African Diaspora Studies, Tulane University.
As part of the National Museum of African Art’s Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean Project and the 50th anniversary museum programming this roundtable discussion presented scholars, musicians and contemporary artisans as they gave their unique insight on the cultural fusions between Oman and East Africa. All participants explored the rich and dense, historic and contemporary relationship between these regions in an open dialogue.
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.
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.
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
- Hazel Chung-Hood, “Afro-Omani Reciprocal Influences in the Traditional Dance of Oman,” Publications of the Oman Centre for Traditional Music
- J.E. Peterson, “Oman’s Diverse Society: Northern Oman,” Middle East Journal
- Ruth M. Stone, “Oman and the African Diaspora in Song, Dance and Aesthetic Expression” Publications of the Oman Centre for Traditional Music
- Majid H. al-Harthy: Performing History, Creating Tradition: The Making of Afro-Omani Music
- The Azanian Sea: An Online Zine of Africa and the Indian Ocean World.
- The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.
- Oman’s History, Culture and Crafts
Renowned authors Ngugi wa Thiong’o, MG Vassanji and Abdulrazak Gurnah at NMAfA
The National Museum of African Art hosted a special selection of readings accompanied by a discussion with renowned authors Ngugi wa Thiong’o, MG Vassanji and Abdulrazak Gurnah on Wednesday, March 4th, 6:30 – 9:00pm. The program brought together for the first time three prolific East African authors/scholars to discuss representations of Indian Ocean cosmopolitanisms, both as idyllic spaces as well as their breakdowns in times of crises; the development of the Indian Ocean world as a trans-regional economic cultural space; hybridity and also the vexed issues of endogamy and exogamy; the ideas of “Africa” and “African,” and the competing claims of indigeneity and diaspora.
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.
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.