Types of Art
Swahili art forms are limited to architecture, furniture, and personal adornment. The great carved wooden doors of the coast are displayed as a sign of wealth.
The inhabitants of the coastal areas of Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique share history, language, and cultural traditions, which some Swahili scholars claim date to at least 100 A.D., when an anonymous Greek traveler and author of The Periplus of the Erytharaean Sea wrote about a place in east Africa, which Arabs frequented to trade with those living on the mainland. This history is closely tied to Indian Ocean trade routes linking India, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa. Despite the shared history and language of the peoples of the Swahili Coast, it remains difficult to describe a discreet Swahili culture. This is not to suggest that a Swahili culture does not exist, but instead that its boundaries are amorphous, changing whenever necessary to meet the demands of everyday life.
Swahili economy today, as in the past, is intricately linked to the Indian Ocean. For approximately 2,000 years, Swahili merchants have acted as middlemen between eastern and central Africa and the outside world. They played a significant role in the trade of ivory and enslaved peoples which climaxed during the 19th centuries. Trade routes extended across Tanzania into modern day Democratic Republic of the Congo, along which goods were brought to the coasts and were sold to Arab, Indian, and Portuguese traders. Many slaves sold in Zanzibar ended up in Brazil, which was then a Portuguese colony. Swahili fishermen still rely on the ocean to supply their primary source of income. Fish is sold to their inland neighbors in exchange for products of the interior.
It is difficult to outline a Swahili political system, since they often incorporated the political practices of their neighbors. They are largely Islamic, and as such much of the power within the family rests in the hands of elder male members. Various Swahili empires have existed throughout history. Strongholds included communities centered in Mombassa, Lamu, and Zanzibar. Swahili traders also acted as middlemen between colonial governments and inland ethnic groups.
The Islam practiced by Swahili peoples is often very strict. Most of the requirements of the religion are practiced by most of the people. The economic success of the Swahili throughout the coastal region has encouraged many of their inland neighbors to adopt Islam as well. Most of these people, however, are somewhat less orthodox. Swahili believe in djinns (spirits). Most men wear protective amulets around their necks, which contain verses from the Koran. Divination is practiced through Koranic readings. Often the diviner incorporates writings from the Koran into treatments for certain diseases. On occasion, he instructs a patient to soak a piece of paper containing verses of the Koran in water. With this ink infused water, literally containing the word of Allah, the patient will then wash his body or drink it to cure himself of his affliction. It is only prophets and teachers of Islam who are permitted to become medicine men among the Swahili.
Multiple Trajectories of Islam in Africa
Islam had already spread into northern Africa by the mid-seventh century A.D., only a few decades after the prophet Muhammad moved with his followers from Mecca to Medina on the neighboring Arabian Peninsula (622 A.D./1 A.H.). The Arab conquest of Spain and the push of Arab armies as far as the Indus River culminated in an empire that stretched over three continents, a mere hundred years after the Prophet’s death. Between the eighth and ninth centuries, Arab traders and travelers, then African clerics, began to spread the religion along the eastern coast of Africa and to the western and central Sudan (literally, “Land of Black people”), stimulating the development of urban communities. Given its negotiated, practical approach to different cultural situations, it is perhaps more appropriate to consider Islam in Africa in terms of its multiple histories rather then as a unified movement.
The first converts were the Sudanese merchants, followed by a few rulers and courtiers (Ghana in the eleventh century and Mali in the thirteenth century). The masses of rural peasants, however, remained little touched. In the eleventh century, the Almoravid intervention, led by a group of Berber nomads who were strict observers of Islamic law, gave the conversion process a new momentum in the Ghana empire and beyond. The spread of Islam throughout the African continent was neither simultaneous nor uniform, but followed a gradual and adaptive path. However, the only written documents at our disposal for the period under consideration derive from Arab sources (see, for instance, accounts by geographers al-Bakri and Ibn Battuta).
Islamic Influence on African Societies
Islamic political and aesthetic influences on African societies remain difficult to assess. In some capital cities, such as Ghana and Gao, the presence of Muslim merchants resulted in the establishment of mosques. The Malian king Mansa Musa (r. 1312–37) brought back from a pilgrimage to Mecca the architect al-Sahili, who is often credited with the creation of the Sudano-Sahelian building style. Musa’s brother, Mansa Sulaiman, followed his path and encouraged the building of mosques, as well as the development of Islamic learning. Islam brought to Africa the art of writing and new techniques of weighting. The city of Timbuktu, for instance, flourished as a commercial and intellectual center, seemingly undisturbed by various upheavals. Timbuktu began as a Tuareg settlement, was soon integrated into the Mali empire, then was reclaimed by the Tuareg, and finally incorporated into the Songhai empire. In the sixteenth century, the majority of Muslim scholars in Timbuktu were of Sudanese origin. On the continent’s eastern coast, Arabic vocabulary was absorbed into the Bantu languages to form the Swahili language. On the other hand, in many cases conversion for sub-Saharan Africans was probably a way to protect themselves against being sold into slavery, a flourishing trade between Lake Chad and the Mediterranean. For their rulers, who were not active proselytizers, conversion remained somewhat formal, a gesture perhaps aimed at gaining political support from the Arabs and facilitating commercial relationships. The strongest resistance to Islam seems to have emanated from the Mossi and the Bamana, with the development of the Ségou kingdom. Eventually, sub-Saharan Africans developed their own brand of Islam, often referred to as “African Islam,” with specific brotherhoods and practices.
Local Mixes of Islamic and African Aesthetics
Because of its resistance to the representation of people and animals, the nature of Islam’s interaction with the visual arts in Africa was one in which Islamic forms were accommodated and adapted. Muslim clerics’ literacy and esoteric powers drew scores of converts to Islam. Sub-Saharan Muslim clerics known as marabouts began fabricating amulets with Qur’anic verses, which came to displace indigenous talismans and medicinal packets. These amulets are featured in the design of many traditional African artifacts.
Islam also reinforced the African fondness for geometric design and the repetition of patterns in decorating the surface of textiles and crafted objects. Local weaving may have been transformed with the importation of North African weaving techniques.
Islam has also often existed side by side with representational traditions such as masquerading. Such practices have often been viewed as supplemental rather than oppositional to Islam, particularly when they are seen as effective or operating outside of the central concerns of the faith. An early example of this was noted by Ibn Battuta, the Maghribi scholar who visited Mali in 1352–53 and witnessed a masquerade performance at the royal court of its Muslim king. In many areas of Africa, the coexistence of Islam with representational art forms continues today. But although Islam has influenced a wide range of artistic practices in Africa since its introduction, monumental architecture is the best-preserved legacy of its early history on the continent. Mosques are the most important architectural examples of the tremendous aesthetic diversity generated by the interaction between African peoples and Islamic faith.
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art