Located at the crossroads of Africa and the Indian Ocean, the Swahili coast has been a vibrant arena of global cultural convergence for over one millennium. For centuries, peoples from the Arabian Peninsula, Asia, Africa, and Europe have journeyed across the Indian Ocean in many directions. On the east African coast, this confluence of peoples gave rise to many diverse communities that are often called “Swahili”—after the Arabic word meaning “edge” or “coast.”
Swahili coast artworks have been shaped by complex migrations across great distances, the formation of new empires, and the making and unmaking of communities and social identities. World on the Horizon explores Swahili arts as objects of mobility, outcomes of encounter, and as products of trade and imperialism. Works from different regions and time periods come together in this exhibition to reveal the movement of artistic forms, motifs, and preferences, and to reflect the changing meanings they may carry during the course of their life histories.
Organized by the Krannert Art Museum, World on the Horizon has been made possible in part by major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Visionary ideas propel the greatest human accomplishments.
Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Arts, the National Museum of African Art’s most recent, large-scale presentation of its collection, is the first to offer broad thematic connections between artworks across the spectrum of time, place, and medium. Visionary aims to get visitors to look with fresh and focused insight and, in so doing, to see works of art—and each other—with new eyes.
Commissioned from internationally renowned artist Yinka Shonibare MBE, the installation of Wind Sculpture VII at the entrance to our museum promises to mark a new landmark of public art on the National Mall. The ship-sail shapes of Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture series, painted to appear like his trademark wax-print cloth material, evoke cross-continental connections—in history, in trade, in politics, in ideas, and in contemporary art.
Greeting visitors in the museum’s entry pavilion, select pieces from the museum’s permanent collection reveal the skill and range of African artists who create art empowered to counter physical, social, and spiritual problems. Works of diverse materials and expressive styles might contain medicines, draw upon the power of the divine, or address such global issues as the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Water is in all of us—to live, we need water to drink. Featuring artworks from the museum’s permanent collection, this exhibition proves that water is one of most potent forces on earth. Its currents flow through myths, metaphors, and rituals. Diverse and wide-ranging in material, time period, style, and intended use, the objects in this exhibition span the continent of Africa to explore the importance of water for both practical and artistic purposes.
A towering and visually striking sculpture of Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture by contemporary Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow is the centerpiece of an exhibition of important acquisitions of the past decade at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. African Mosaic: Selections from the Permanent Collection showcases museum purchases and gifts and provides a glimpse into the collecting opportunities and decisions that exist for art museums.
African Mosaic: 50th Anniversary Room
In 1963, during the height of the civil rights movement, retired U.S. Foreign Service officer Warren M. Robbins (1923–2008) established the Center for Cross Cultural Understanding to “show the rich creative heritage of Africa, and to underscore the implications of this heritage in America’s quest for interracial understanding.” The following year, Robbins expanded his vision and opened the Museum of African Art. Originally housed in a Capitol Hill town house once owned by the great intellectual, abolitionist, former slave, and statesman, Frederick Douglass, the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1979 by an act of Congress and was renamed the National Museum of African. Over the course of its five decades, the museum has become home to more than 12,000 works of art that speak to both the talent and skill of diverse African artists and communities, and the unique history of this institution and the individuals who have helped to shape it.
Donated to the museum in 2005, the Walt Disney–Tishman Collection is known for its unique and rare works of traditional African art from throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The collection has been instrumental in defining the field of African art history in the United States and abroad.
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.