Editor’s note: Speaking at the opening of an art exhibit earlier this year, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres observed:” It has been painful to see how much of humankind’s cultural heritage has been lost in recent years. Indeed, we face an array of challenges that imperil efforts to protect our common heritage – from the climate crisis to civil unrest – from armed conflict to terrorism. These threats vary in nature – but there is a common feature integral to the response, and that is international cooperation.” Even as he spoke, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was preparing to launch an exhibition titled “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara.” As Max Hollein, Director of the Museum notes in this article, “the exhibition was conceived to address a complex history, one which is relatively unfamiliar to those outside a region that, of late, has been increasingly defined by news coverage as a crisis zone.”


From the first millennium, Africa’s western Sahel—a vast region just south of the Sahara Desert that spans what is today Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—was a cradle of civilization that flourished as a nexus of global exchange with the development of the trans-Saharan trade routes. Home to the legendary empires of Ghana (300–1200), Mali (1230–1600), Songhay (1464–1591) and Segu (1712–1860), the succession of states—which in some cases covered a territory as vast as Western Europe—dawned, flourished and receded over the course of a thousand years. Their larger-than-life reputations have been the subject of an extensive body of literature by historians yet remain highly abstract in our visual imagination. This is partly due to the fact that the region’s enormously rich material cultural has largely fallen outside of historical and artistic frames of reference. 

On 30 January, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara , an exhibition that examines—indeed celebrates—this important and relatively unfamiliar artistic legacy. The survey we have undertaken over the last four years introduces stunning achievements in material culture produced from the fourth to the nineteenth centuries, presented in relation to the Sahel’s shifting spheres of state influence. Rather than place the objects within a timeless ethnographic present, the exhibition advances their significance as direct points of connection with the many-layered history of what has been a major cradle of human artistic expression and a crossroads of cultural exchange.

In fact, this is the first exhibition of its kind to trace the legacy of those mighty states and what they produced in the visual arts. The presentation brings into focus transformative developments—such as the rise and fall of political dynasties and the arrival of Islam—through some two hundred objects in every medium imaginable, from fired clay to many of the earliest woven textiles from sub-Saharan Africa. Highlights include loans from the region's national collections, such as a magnificent, ancient terracotta equestrian figure (third through eleventh century) from the Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines, University of Niamey, Niger; and a dazzling, twelfth-century gold pectoral that is a Senegalese national treasure, from the Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire (IFAN) in Dakar. To represent the official historians of Sahelian states—the court bards or "dyeliw", also known as "griots"—visitors will be able to listen to the recordings of Mande griots in the section of the exhibition devoted to the dynamic, living tradition of epic poetry.   

Installation view of the exhibition "Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara". © The Metropolitan Museum of Art 2020, photography by Anna-Marie Kellen.

The exhibition was conceived to address a complex history, one which is relatively unfamiliar to those outside a region that, of late, has been increasingly defined by news coverage as a crisis zone. At this moment, Sahelian communities are confronted with many pressing twenty-first-century challenges, from increasing desertification due to climate change, to security threats by extremists, to the perils faced by migrants crossing deserts and oceans. Sahel, a celebration of creative achievements of great originality, affords us the rare opportunity to portray the highly dynamic nature of the lasting cultural legacy of the Sahel prior to the beginning of the colonial era in the late nineteenth century.

Major exhibitions like Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara are the result of many years of planning and ideally constitute a journey of discovery for visitors as well as the organizers and key partners. Over the last generation, the Sahel’s precolonial history has been the focus of a rich body of scholarship. The principle sources of inquiry into that past are the tributes intoned by oral historians, Arabic texts by foreign and indigenous authors, physical traces of settlements unearthed by archaeologists and the enduring material creations of the region’s gifted visual artists. These sources do not form a unified understanding of the events that shaped the Sahel but, rather, suggest complex contradictions. Accordingly, the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue reflect the array of knowledge required to address the history of the Sahel and respond to it from different perspectives. Alisa LaGamma, the Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge of Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at The Met, and her team have been working on this exhibition for several years, and have secured impressive loans from collections across the world, most notably from the Sahel, many being seen in North America for the first time. We have been honoured to work with such an esteemed and varied group of collaborators, advisors, scholars, archaeologists, philosophers and museum directors from across the world. Seeing all of these treasures on view together for the first time, one can truly grasp the grand scope of this precious material.

Noted Senegalese singer Baaba Maal (right), who performed at the Metropolitan Museum’s Sahel exhibition, meets United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, Melissa Fleming (left). New York, 11 March 2020. Photo: Steven Bornholtz.

Notably, this exhibition foregrounds measures taken to protect Sahelian cultural property in the past, as well as recent developments that make evident the ongoing vulnerability of the region’s internationally recognized World Heritage sites designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The majesty of some of the region’s less familiar cultural sites is evoked by a landmark from Senegambia’s megalithic sites, an 8,000-pound stone monument on loan from the IFAN Theodore Monod African Art Museum in Dakar. In a section of the exhibition devoted to archaeology as a critical means of investigating the region’s many-layered past, we address the role that Mali has played in developing an approach to cultural preservation, which  has been a model internationally. Until the 1970s, traces of Mali’s ancient civilizations surfaced as casual finds in the form of anthropomorphic terracotta statuettes eroding out of several of the mounds surrounding Jenn. International awareness of such sites led to the establishment of a major controlled excavation at Jenne-jeno.  It also resulted in extensive unsanctioned digging of the landscape for commercial gain.

Methodical excavation in 1977 and 1981 led by Roderick and Susan McIntosh recovered the first scientifically documented Middle Niger figurative terracottas. Such findings underscored the rich legacy that is at stake, prompting the Malian Government to begin taking measures to safeguard that patrimony. In 1993, Mali and the United States ratified a bilateral agreement to protect the region's major archaeological sites, in which both countries formally entered into a partnership to suppress the traffic in Malian antiquities. The accord is not retroactive and is limited to these two signatories, but it addresses the need to protect antiquities that remain in the ground. A campaign of national public education accompanied and reinforced the launch of this historic initiative. Despite the success of these past measures, in the last decade, the cultural heritage of Mali has faced a new existential threat, in which its historic landmarks, including Timbuktu’s storied libraries and mosques, have been among the targets of iconoclasm by Islamic extremists.

The development of The Met’s exhibition—which is not defined by the national boundaries of contemporary nation States—has fostered a sense of community among museum professionals across institutions in the Sahel who worked with us to introduce their national treasures. The week they spent in New York together as a group to finalize the presentation and to celebrate its launch was the first time many of them had met one another. The conversations afforded over the course of their work together in New York ranged from addressing at once the importance of presenting a different aspect of the region as well as the shared challenges they face.  We have been honored to work with such an esteemed and varied group of collaborators, advisors, scholars, archaeologists, philosophers, and museum directors from across the world. We are immensely appreciative of Professor Roderick McIntosh’s role as a major advisor to the Sahel project, and to his role as a teacher and advisor to several generations of leading archaeologists in the region.

Mother and Child (Detail), Bamana peoples, Mali, 15th–early 20th century. Wood Private collection. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, photo by Peter Zeray.

With this initiative, we have not only sought to prioritize the development of the foundation for strong collaborative relationships with institutions in Mali, Senegal, Niger and Mauretania, but also to contribute to the professional development of future museum professionals from the region. Since December 2019, we have had two doctoral candidates in archaeology from Cheikh Anta Diop University in residence at our institution as graduate fellows in the Department of the Arts of Africa to observe the implementation of the Sahel exhibition and participate in the interpretation of the content for international visitors. This is a moment when museums across sub-Saharan Africa are in great need of support from their national Governments, and those of us in museums outside the region have a great deal to contribute to fostering future museum curators and leaders in the field of cultural preservation.

This exhibition provides a greater understanding of the Sahel’s past, its creative innovations and continuities in deep time, and instills a deep respect and awe for the material culture that attests to this. At a time when our awareness of global history and events must expand, we hope that this presentation contributes to a greater understanding of the Sahelian legacy through visual forms of expression, placed within the context of major historical events as they unfolded.

13 March 2020

Update: On 12 March 2020, The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would temporarily close all three of its New York City locations—The Met Fifth Avenue, The Met Breuer and The Met Cloisters—starting on 13 March 2020, to support the City's effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The Museum would undertake a thorough cleaning and planned to announce further steps during the week of 16 March 2020. 

Daniel H. Weiss, President and CEO of the Museum, stated that the Museum administration looked forward to announcing soon when it would be able to welcome back staff and visitors to The Met.

You can learn more about the exhibition and continue to explore related resources online through The Met's website.


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