First Major Swahili Coast Art Show Reveals a Diverse World of Cultural Exchange and Influence

Smithsonian Magazine, May 22, 2018


"Aside from the glittering jewelry, intricately carved ivory and woodwork, revealing photographs and cosmopolitan decorative items, a new exhibition on art from the Swahili Coast at the Smithsonian’s African Art Museum ultimately centers on words.

Both the oldest and newest items on display in World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Ocean, the first major exhibition dedicated to the arts of the Swahili coast in southeastern Africa, are both concerned with words.

Tombstones carved from coral dating back to the 15th century combine their text with vegetal patterns and flowers; their forms recall stones from Egypt and Iran from the 12th to 15th century, emphasizing the Swahili Coast as a place where many cultures crossed, from both Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India and China.

But an array of super contemporary messages are to be found, artfully, on bicycle mud flaps from Zanzibar from only a dozen years ago whose phrases, translated, offer phrases such as “Work is Life,” “Maybe Later” and “All’s Cool my Friend.”"

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