Swahili Arts at the Fowler
"Swahili" means roughly "The Coast." The latter is U.S. shorthand for Los Angeles, perceived as nouveau riche and suspiciously "other" by much of the nation. Africa's Indian Ocean frontage had a comparable reputation. Its cities were wealthy, though with great inequality of means, and were a polyglot blend of African, Islamic, Indian, Far-Eastern, European—and even American— influences.
"World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean," a traveling show organized by the Krannert Art Museum (University of Illinois), has just landed at UCLA's Fowler Museum. Featuring many objects that have never before been shown in the U.S., the exhibition spans the 1600s to nearly the present: illuminated manuscripts, silver. jewelry, textiles, porcelain, furniture, architectural elements, and photographs.
Nearly everything is deluxe and labor-intensive, yet made for people who moved around a lot. Throne-like chairs (kiti cha enzi) were made to be easily disassembled; sea chests come with wheels. The region's wealth came from overseas trade. The exhibition presents the wood sandals of the notorious Tippu Tip, a black capitalist who traded in human chattel and gifted his footwear to English artist-adventurer Herbert Ward. After the globalizing Enlightenment abolished slavery, Tippu Tip retired to cultivate his garden (an orchard producing cloves, the spicy buds ground into pumpkin spice lattes).
|Unknown artist, Zanzibar, Kiti cha enzi (Chair of Power), 1989|
|Koran, early 19th century, from Siyu, Kenya|
|Dhow chest, late 19th century|
|Drum, c. 17th century|
|J. P. Fernandes, Ostafrikanische Schönheit ("East African Beauty"), postcard printed c. 1912 from c. pre-1900 negative.|
"World on the Horizon" (through Feb. 10, 2019) is one of three simultaneous exhibitions of African art now at the Fowler. It joins "Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths" (through Dec. 30) and "Summoning the Ancestors: Southern Nigerian Bronzes" (to Mar. 10, 2019).
|Ironworks from "African Iron"|