Met Exhibition to Focus on Artistic Legacy of Africa’s Sahel

January 30–May 10, 2020, The Met Fifth Avenue, Floor 1, Gallery 199

From the first millennium, Africa’s western Sahel—a vast area on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, spanning what is today Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger—was the birthplace of a succession of influential states fueled by regional and global trade networks. On view now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara will be the first exhibition of its kind to trace the cultural legacy of the region, including the legendary empires of Ghana (300–1200), Mali (1230–1600), Songhay (1464–1591), and Segu (1640–1861). The exhibition will bring together some 200 works that were created in parallel to these developments, including spectacular sculptures in wood, stone, fired clay, and bronze; gold and cast metal artifacts; woven and dyed textiles; and illuminated manuscripts.

This exhibition will celebrate the extraordinary—though relatively unfamiliar—cultural traditions of the western Sahel,” said Max Hollein, Director of The Met.We’re deeply grateful to our colleagues around the world, especially in the Sahel, for lending the works of art that will bring this fascinating history to life. These highly innovative creations are sure to inspire a greater understanding of the Sahel’s complex history, and the pivotal events that unfolded in this global crossroads. Given the pressing matters confronting the region today, it’s especially important to reflect on its legacy of creative dynamism with our audiences.”

Equestrian (detail), 3rd–10th century. Bura-Asinda-Sikka Site, Niger. Terracotta. Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines, Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey, Niger (BRK 85 AC 5e5). © Photo Maurice Ascani.

The exhibition will bring into focus such transformative moments as the development of urbanism, the rise and fall of political dynasties, and the arrival of Islam. Highlights will include loans from the region’s national collections that will travel to the United States for the first time, such as a magnificent ancient terracotta equestrian figure (3rd through 11th century) excavated at the site of Bura in 1985, from the Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines, Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey, Niger; a rare 12th-century gold pectoral from Rao that is a Senegalese national treasure from the collection of the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar; and the Timbuktu manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library in Mali.

Although the material artifacts created in the Sahel we will be presenting constitute our most immediate connection to its past, they have largely remained isolated and detached from the region’s history and succession of legendary states,” said Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “What is today southcentral Mali is renowned for its traditions of wood sculpture produced by Dogon and Bamana masters. This exhibition seeks to anchor those more fully in what has been an ever-changing cultural landscape and situate them in relation to a more expansive array of its artistic landmarks. The immersive experience of this presentation will take you on a journey that underscores a many-layered past. A sense of continuity in the visualization of ideals of power and leadership will be embodied in a cavalcade of equestrian figures produced by regional artists over the course of the last millennium, led by the commanding Bura example from present-day Niger showcasing a breathtaking amount of detail down to the figure’s adornment of stacked bracelets and chokers and his mount’s harness.”

There is so much focus on the challenges that the Sahel faces today: increasing desertification owing to climate change, security threats from extremists, and perilous desert and ocean crossings to Europe faced by migrants,” said Mamadou Diouf, Leitner Family Professor of African History at Columbia University, and a key curatorial advisor to the exhibition. “This presentation provides an opportunity to wonder at the Sahel’s legacy of creative ingenuity and resilience going back millennia.”

The exhibition’s opening gallery will dramatically juxtapose ancient sculptural creations, from the monumental to the miniature. An eighth-century three-ton megalith in the form of a lyre, originally from what is today the UNESCO World Heritage site of Wanar—now a fixture of downtown Dakar in Senegal, just outside the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire Cheikh Anta Diop (IFAN Ch. A. Diop)—will be seen in relation to a nearly three-inch female torso known as the Venus of Thiaroye (pre-2000 B.C.), also in the IFAN Ch. A. Diop collection.

The exhibition will afford a broad survey of the region’s visual arts in relation to major historical events and architectural monuments across the western Sahel. Among the compelling works assembled are two terracotta sculptural representations created in Mali’s Inland Niger Delta dating from the 12th to the 14th century: a corpulent reclining figure of a male potentate excavated at Jenne-jeno that is a centerpiece of the Musée National du Mali, Bamako, and, from The Menil Collection in Houston, a kneeling female figure in a posture of intense devotion. A procession of 14 mounted warriors will extend the length of the exhibition—led by Niger’s iconic third-century Bura terracotta equestrian, unearthed in a necropolis, and culminating in a rider carved by a 19th-century Bamana master from Mali as a communal allegory of power. The adoption of Islam in the Sahel in the 11th century as well as the impact of global trade across the region will be illustrated through precious documents, including an illuminated portolan map on vellum from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, produced in 1413 by the Majorcan cartographer Mecia de Viladestes.

The latest installment in a program of long-term African art research projects developed by The Met—previous exhibitions include Kongo: Power and Majesty (2015), Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures (2011), and Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary (2007)—Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara will foreground major artistic movements from sub-Saharan Africa. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue will bring together a range of cross-disciplinary perspectives on the material, with contributions from historians specializing in oral traditions and Islam, archaeologists, philosophers, and art historians. In developing this project over the last four years, The Met has consulted and collaborated with numerous scholars in the humanities, including Roderick McIntosh (Professor and Curator of Anthropology at Yale University); Mamadou Diouf (Leitner Family Professor of African History at Columbia University); Mamadou Cissé (Chief of the Cultural Mission of Kangaba Direction Nationale du Patrimoine Culturel du Mali); Paulo F. de Moraes Farias FBA (Department of African Studies and Anthropology University of Birmingham, United Kingdom); David Conrad (Emeritus Professor of History State University of New York at Oswego); Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University); Ibrahima Thiaw (Associate Professor Archaeology Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar); Ralph Austen (Professor Emeritus of African History at the University of Chicago); David Robinson (Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Michigan); and Abdourahmane Seck (Faculty of Civilizations, Religions, Arts, and Communication University Gaston Berger of Saint Louis, Senegal).

Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara will bring together works from the national collections of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, and Senegal for the first time. Key lenders include Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden), Netherlands; Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, and the Museum Rietberg, Zurich, Switzerland; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Fondation Dapper, and Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris, France; Museum Ulm, Germany; The Menil Collection (Houston), The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City), and Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven), United States; Office National des Musées de Mauritanie, Mauritania; Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines and the Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey, Niger; Mamma Haidara Memorial Library, Timbuktu, and the Musée National du Mali, Bamako, Mali; and Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, Senegal.

This exhibition will open just ahead of the renovation and re-envisioning of The Met’s Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, the 40,000 square feet of galleries devoted to the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. This major redesign of the galleries is a vital part of the Museum’s long-term commitment to advancing the presentation and study of Africa’s contributions to a history of world art.

The exhibition is organized by The Met’s Alisa LaGamma, Ceil and Michael E. Pulitzer Curator in Charge, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, with the assistance of Yaëlle Biro, Associate Curator, and Research Associate Hakimah Abdul-Fattah.

The exhibition is made possible by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Laura G. & James J. Ross, and The International Council of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The catalogue is made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and The MCS Endowment Fund.

In conjunction with Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, two doctoral candidates in archaeology from Cheikh Anta Diop University in Senegal have been invited by The Met to participate in a four-month curatorial training fellowship, which began in December 2019. They will join the curatorial team in the Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in installing the exhibition and engaging in its public programming over the following months.

Related Programs

A range of programs and performances has been organized to complement the exhibition.

Concerts by powerhouse musicians from Senegal and Mali include the world renowned and Grammy Award-winner Baaba Maal in a rare acoustic program on March 9, 2020, and the guitar master Vieux Farka Touré on April 3, 2020.

An evening of “Storytelling and West African Cinema,” on February 20, will bring together a panel of established and rising filmmakers, led by Mahen Bonetti, Founder of the African Film Festival, to discuss the power of films to capture the essence of the Sahel and its narrative tradition.

A series of in-gallery “Conversations with…” tours with curators Alisa LaGamma and Yaëlle Biro will take place on the afternoons of February 21 and April 3, respectively.

On Sunday, March 8, from 1 to 4 p.m., “Family Afternoons—Stories of the Sahara” will welcome families with children of all ages and abilities for art making, gallery activities, and Storytime.

A Sunday at The Met program, on April 5 from 2 to 3:30 p.m., entitled “Histories of the Sahel,” will bring together a panel including Mamadou Diouf (Columbia University), Michael Gomez (New York University), David Robinson (Michigan State University), and François-Xavier Fauvelle (Collège de France) and will be moderated by award-winning journalist Howard French.

Also in April, “MetFridays: Sahel” will celebrate the culture and history of the Sahel region with an evening of artist talks, performances, demonstrations, and participation from local community partners.

The exhibition will be featured on The Met website, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. There will also be a series of Met blog posts that explore a variety of themes related to Sahel, including oral traditions, scholarly contributions, and behind-the-scenes experiences while mounting the exhibition.