World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean is the first major traveling exhibition dedicated to the arts of the Swahili coast and their historically deep and enduring connections to eastern and central Africa, the port towns of the western Indian Ocean. Organized by Krannert Art Museum (KAM) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the exhibition offers audiences an unprecedented opportunity to view nearly 200 artworks brought together from public and private collections from Kenya, Oman, The Netherlands, Germany, and the United States. Here co-curators Allyson Purpura and Prita Meier share some reflections on the making of this extraordinary project and its journey to NMAfA.
We began working on the concept for the show back in 2013, though given the combined decades of research we’ve devoted to the Swahili coast, it’s safe to say the idea has been percolating in each of us for years. When we finally combined forces to realize the project, our excitement ran high! At that time, Prita was assistant professor of art history at the University of Illinois (and is now at NYU), and Allyson was curator of global African art at Krannert Art Museum on the Illinois campus. We started by brainstorming thematic approaches and imagining objects we thought could best tell the stories of long-distance trade, empire, mobility, and the confluence of cultures so central to understanding Swahili coast arts and their global reach. In the end, our vision for World on the Horizon took us to four continents to work with numerous museums, communities, and scholars. The exhibition and nearly 400-page edited volume is very much a collaborative project.Read more ...
Back in the States, the real work of pulling a show of this size and complexity together was well under way. KAM registrar and exhibitions director, Christine Saniat, worked tirelessly to coordinate the loan of nearly 200 objects from 28 institutions and private lenders from across the globe, oversee the 5000-square-foot installation, and basically keep us on track. Meanwhile, we curators were working on the exhibition design with Rice+Lipka Architects, a terrific New York-based design team with whom KAM had worked on numerous projects. Based on our many conversations and close studies of Swahili objects and contextual photos, they created a stunning, restrained design inspired by the geometries of space and light so characteristic of the austere architecture and winding alleyways of Swahili port towns. In the layout, objects from different regions and time periods were brought into dialogue to reveal the itinerancy of artistic forms, motifs, and preferences, and to allow viewers to ponder the changing meanings objects carry with them over the course of their life histories. We also worked with Night Kitchen Interactive to develop the atmospheric video that introduces visitors to the geographic reach of the exhibition and to the interplay of aesthetic influences that inform the multifaceted objects they would soon encounter in the exhibition. We were also drafting our thematic texts and object labels, a crucial task we accomplished with the vital assistance of art history graduate student Jenny Peruski.
Taking over three weeks to install, the galleries were a hive of activity. The KAM team was joined by couriers from seven lending institutions, including the National Museum of African Art’s (NMAfA) Dana Moffett. Crates ranging in size from breadboxes to SUVs filled the staging ground, with registrars and conservators carefully unpacking objects, writing condition reports, and securing mounts. We placed the objects, closed the vitrines, and finally, lit the show. It was dazzling. At our gala event on August 31st, we were thrilled to open the show alongside our distinguished guests from Kenya, who were seeing so many historic objects from the Swahili world brought together for the first time.World on the Horizon reflects our defining commitment to exploring pressing themes of global relevance from a comparative and interdisciplinary vantage point. While on view at Illinois, the exhibition played a significant role in the cultural and intellectual life of campus and was integrated into numerous courses. Faculty in the departments of comparative and world literature, history, Asian American studies, Gender and Women Studies, Middle East and South Asian studies, Swahili studies, English, art history, African studies, anthropology, linguistics, and geography worked with Allyson, as resident curator, to teach an array of subjects in conjunction with the exhibition. KAM also co-organized two workshops in conjunction with the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities and the annual meeting of African Studies Association, invited Indian Ocean scholar Isabel Hofmeyr to give a keynote public lecture, and hosted gallery forums and tours with the African Students Organization, congregants from the Central Illinois Islamic Center and Mosque, and other members of the Urbana-Champaign community.
On view at KAM for seven months, World on the Horizon was deinstalled in late March 2018. It was hard to let it go! Couriers returned to oversee the packing and crating of their precious objects for their journey to their next destination–the National Museum of African Art. Looking back, when NMAfA agreed to take the exhibition, we were nothing short of ecstatic. Since its inception, NMAfA has been a distinguished destination for art historians interested in Africa and its diaspora from around the globe—not only for its preeminent collection and research library, but also for the stellar resident scholars who continue to make the museum a deeply vital center for research and critical curatorial practice. On a more personal note, Allyson “cut her curatorial teeth” at NMAfA with her long -time mentor, Christine Mullen Kreamer, now the museum’s chief curator and deputy director. Traveling the show to NMAfA is not only a great honor; it is like coming home.Partnering with NMAfA also affords us an opportunity to reach vast and diverse audiences, from NMAfA’s local, dedicated visitors to those from afar. With our focus on transoceanic histories of cultural mobility and exchange, we hope the exhibition will convey to audiences what it means to bring a global perspective to the arts. In particular, this show emphasizes the affective power of objects to create networks of affinity across different cultures and asks visitors to consider how artistic practice and human creativity can lead people to remap their relationships to seemingly distant places and societies. The exhibition also avoids reifying “Islamic art” as something that is unified, separate from, and thus incorporated into Swahili aesthetics, and looks instead at Islam as a constitutive part of Swahili visual art forms and practices.
With this exhibition we are suggesting that museums can encourage new ways of seeing and being in the world by exploring unexpected or little-known interconnections, tensions, and confluences across the globe. Indeed, we hope World on the Horizon will reveal the great potential of the Swahili coast to de-center the art historical canons and museological frameworks that have long kept Asia, the Middle East, the Americas, and Africa apart—and in place. Both KAM and NMAfA share a commitment to broaden understanding of diverse cultural and artistic achievements. In that spirit, we want to thank all our terrific colleagues at NMAfA, especially curator Kevin Dumouchelle and Christine Mullen Kreamer, for their keen support of this exhibition and for their colossal efforts to bring it to Washington, D.C.
Prita Meier is assistant professor of art history at New York University. Her research focuses on the arts and architectures of east African port cities and the histories of transcontinental exchange and conflict. She is the author of Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere (Indiana University Press, 2016). Meier is working on a new book about the social and aesthetic history of photography in Zanzibar and Mombasa. She is currently the William C. Seitz Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study of the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.). Meier has a Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Alysson Purpura is senior curator and curator of Global African Art at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research on the politics of Islamic knowledge practices in Zanzibar led to her current interest in the broader connections between knowledge and power, particularly as they play out in the representational practices of museums. In addition to her teaching and curatorial practice, Purpura has published on a range of topics, including Islamic charisma and piety in Zanzibar, script and image in African art, “undisciplined” knowledge, ephemeral art and the politics of exhibiting African art. She has a Ph.D. from CUNY Graduate Center.
Kevin Dumouchelle has served as curator at the National Museum of African Art since October 2016. He was the lead curator for “Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Arts” (2017), the museum’s most recent, comprehensive presentation of its permanent collection. From 2007 to 2016, he was the Brooklyn Museum’s curator in charge of its African and Pacific Islands collections. At Brooklyn, he conceived two award-winning reinstallations of the African collection: “African Innovations” (2014) and “Double Take: African Innovations” (2014). He has written books and articles and curated a range of exhibitions on contemporary and historical African art, including “Power Incarnate: Allan Stone’s Collection of Sculpture from the Congo” (2011) at the Bruce Museum, and the Brooklyn Museum presentations of “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” (2013) and “Disguise: Masks and Global African Art” (2016). Dumouchelle has a Ph.D. from Columbia University.
Christine Mullen Kreamer is the National Museum of African Art’s deputy director and chief curator. In addition to articles and essays on historic and contemporary African arts and museum practice, her recent award-winning exhibitions and co-authored publications include Conversations: African and African American Artwork in Dialogue (2014), African Cosmos: Stellar Arts (2012), Lines, Marks, and Drawings: Through the Lens of Roger Ballen (2013), Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art (2007) and African Vision: The Walt Disney-Tishman African Art Collection (2007). She is also a contributing author of an essay on connoisseurship in the 2014 edited volume Visions from the Forest: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone and two essays in Representing Africa in American Art Museums (University of Washington Press, 2011). In 2017, she curated the museum’s permanent collection exhibition “Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Arts” with Kevin Dumouchelle and Karen E. Milbourne.