Holland Cotter (The New York Times)
When I was, maybe, 10, flipping through books in my grandfather’s house I came across a photograph of the Great Mosque at Djenné in Mali, West Africa, and thought, this is the strangest, most wonderful, most outer-space building I’ve ever seen. Beige-color and turreted, it was as soft-edged as a sand castle, but huge, dwarfing people in the street. I wanted to go there.
I eventually did – stood gazing at the Great Mosque’s walls in sunlight and moonlight. And on a visit last week to the exhibition “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I felt a little like I was there again, but now with other extraterrestrial sights to take in, including sculptures as sublime as the mosque itself.
Sahel derives from the Arabic word for shore or coast. It was the name given by traders crossing the oceanic Sahara centuries ago to the welcoming grasslands that marked the desert’s southern rim, terrain that now includes modern Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. On the evidence of art from the Sahel, the culture that travelers encountered must have looked like a rich but bewildering hybrid. The art still does, which may be one reason it stands, in the West, somewhat outside an accepted “African” canon.
The West has always viewed Africa narrowly, categorically, as a way of exerting control. So African art means carved-wood or metal sculpture in stand-alone “tribal” styles that never change. Or it means riffs on forms borrowed from somewhere else – Renaissance Europe, say, or the greater Islamic world. One way or the other, African art is a thing you can recognize instantly.
The Met show demonstrates otherwise. One look around tells you that the story here is variety within variety, difference talking to difference. New ideas spring from local soil and arrive from afar. Ethnicities and ideologies both collide and embrace. Cultural influences get swapped, dropped, and recouped in a multitrack sequencing that is the very definition of history.
To assert that the art of Africa has a history, or histories, is very much the show’s goal. And if the history of art from the Sahel is difficult to map that’s because so much has disappeared. Much has been displaced by amateur digging and looting. Untold amounts of material still lie hidden in the ground.
Given all that, the 200 objects gathered at the Met are a wonder to behold. And the show’s organizers – Alisa LaGamma, curator in charge of the department of arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas; associate curator Yaëlle Biro; and research associate Hakimah Abdul-Fattah – have skillfully shaped that wonder into a linear narrative.
It’s introduced by two sculptures that are among the oldest on view and feel monumental in very different ways. A 7-foot-tall megalith, dating from the 8th-9th century A.D. is by far the show’s largest work. But with its russet surface and plump V shape it has a hunkering delicacy. The second sculpture is much older, pre-2000 B.C., small, pebble-size. But with a few lightly incised tweaks a resourceful artist has conjured an icon of procreative female power.
These objects provide a baseline of antiquity for the curators to build a history on. And so they do, plotting it almost diagrammatically, by dates and themes, in two rows of mini-galleries with a wide path between. And they line the path with a kind of honor guard of a dozen equestrian sculptures in terra-cotta, metal and wood.
The images, produced over a wide time span from the 3rd and 19th centuries by cultures in present-day Mali and Niger, are widely varied in media, style and probably function, but lined up together they suggest a kind of symbolic solidarity, an affirmation of the integrity and complexity, past and present, of something called the Sahel.
But it is sculpture, and specifically some 20 terra-cotta and wood Middle Niger figures, that forms the visual and emotional heart of the show. At least one of these pieces is world-famous: A half-reclining terra-cotta figure, androgynous, headless, superbly detailed, and found by the archaeologists at the site of Djenné-Djeno, an ancient city in what is now Mali that was mysteriously abandoned around 1400 A.D.
Whatever the crisis that led to the city’s demise seems to have affected that entire region. And it was preceded by an almost convulsive surge of artistic creativity that generated some of the most moving sculptures ever made, including those seen here.
In one, a figure of ambiguous gender presses its head to the earth as if in grief or prayer. In another, a woman folds her arms across her bare chest in a gesture of devotion or self-protection. In a third, a tall, curving wood-carved figure with hermaphroditic features has the en pointe grace of a Chartres saint. Some forms are nearly abstract; worshippers with tuning-fork bodies reach up beseechingly toward the sky. And some exhibit a kind of pathological realism, as in the case of a terra-cotta figure whose body sprouts tumor-like knobs.
The exhibition concludes with still more Sahel sculpture, a magnificent ensemble of large-scale figures carved from wood by the Bamana people of Mali in the 18th through 20th centuries. Together they represent a type of “African art” we’ve been accustomed thinking of as typical, or “classical.” Yet by the time you’ve arrived at this end point in the show you’ve learned that, in the culture of the Sahel, there is no “typical,” no one style, no one “Africa”.
“Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” runs through May 10. Metropolitan Museum of Art, (212) 535-7710, metmuseum.org.