With its long stone hallways and winding staircases, the National Museum of African Art is one of the most peaceful museums on the Mall. If you’re looking to get away from the hordes of loud tourists and the humid air, you can’t do much better than this quiet museum, nestled between the Hirshhorn and the Freer Sackler. While the calming water fountain and huge skylights give the place an exceptionally zen feel, the Museum of African Arts newest exhibit has no interest in winding you down. World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean is an electrifying exhibition featuring a slew of multimedia art from Swahili Coast, where African, Asian and European aesthetics combine to create jewelry, literature, furniture and architecture that is truly one of a kind.
Curated by Allyson Purpura and Preita Meyer and overseen by Kevin D. Dumouchelle, D.C. is the exhibition’s first stop on its tour. Purpa and Meyer were able to utilize the space in a slightly unusual way, instead of having one clear entrance and one clear exit, no matter which door you enter through, the exhibition starts around the edges and shows off a larger variety of art as you get closer to the middle. The first part of the exhibition, “Between Land and Sea”, offers a viewer a glimpse at the ornately decorated everyday items that would be crafted and traded along the coasts many ports, highlighting the metropolitan and culturally complex population. It’s a sumptuous collection of items including ivory horns, velvet jewelry boxes, golden bracelets and beautifully carved wooden sandals.
Move further in and you’ll hit the next two parts of the exhibition almost simultaneously. “Architecture of the Port” displays intricately carved door frames and pieces of coral, while “In the Presence of Words” displays a host of elaborate Qurans, featuring lots of gold leaf and stunning calligraphy. The exhibit also features artfully written bicycle mud flaps. Placing these seemingly more modern objects next to arabic inscribed door frames and incredibly old Qurans certainly kicks off a conversation about the importance of religion, but also the importance of communication in everyday life.
One of the jewels of the collection is a long wall packed with Swahili photography. Shortly after photography was invented in the 1830’s, it made its way to the Swahili Coast where it became incredibly popular, especially when it came to portraiture. As one especially astute visitor said, you could consider them the world’s oldest selfies. While some of the photography is clearly dated, there are a handful of photos that feel like they could have been taken yesterday and the anachronisms are astounding.
D.C. is filled with incredibly art exhibitions and your schedule is certainly stacked full of things to do, but don’t let World on the Horizon slip through your fingers.
World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean opens May 9. Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian.