Treasures of the Sahel

Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, January 30–August 23, 2020
(The museum is temporarily closed. Works from the exhibition can be seen at
Catalog of the exhibition by Alisa LaGamma
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 303 pp., $65.00
An equestrian pendant from the Dogon or Bozo peoples
Metropolitan Museum of Art
An equestrian pendant from the Dogon or Bozo peoples (Mali), copper alloy, 3 1/2 × 3 1/4 × 1/2 inches, nineteenth century

As a senior in college in 1979, I set off with a brother seven years my junior, first by rickety train and then by bush taxi, heading north from the coast and deep into the West African interior. Our point of departure was Abidjan, the gleaming modern financial capital of Ivory Coast. We had no fixed destination but a clear goal: to voyage as far north along the Niger River as our funds and my school holiday would permit. Distant Timbuktu, the most fabled town on the river and one of the sturdiest metaphors for remoteness, was a long shot, but even if we couldn’t make it there, we had other objectives that seemed attainable.

I had been reading about Africa intensively since my parents moved to Abidjan with my younger siblings a few years earlier, and I was all but obsessed with a couple of questions. The impressive new wealth of Ivory Coast, built on cocoa and coffee farming, was exciting enough to behold, but what really interested me was seeing evidence of the great empires that had made the Sahel, the broad interior region just south of the Sahara Desert, a critical but overlooked engine of early Western modernization through its control of what was then the world’s most plentiful source of gold. And beyond that, I wanted to understand what had made the civilizations of this region all come to ruin: How had those empires that spanned the third to the sixteenth centuries—Ghana, Mali, Songhay—all lost their splendor and fallen apart, leaving hardly a trace?1

The town of Bandiagara, which sits in the center of butterfly-shaped Mali, some forty-five miles from the great river on a parched plain dominated by purplish cliffs that are one of the region’s most spectacular sights, was as far as we got before I succumbed to a severe gastrointestinal illness.2 We had been drawn there by the Dogon, a small and isolated people known for their distinctive traditions of statuary: elongated sculptures of the human form that recall Giacometti, who was strongly influenced by African art; sharp-faced figures that stand erect or ride on horseback; and, most famously, wooden doors ornately carved with anthropomorphic spirits and lizards and snakes, which are immediately recognizable to anyone knowledgable about the region’s art.

But the Dogon were known for other reasons as well. Their story, first recounted to me by a crowd of teenage boys in Bandiagara, was one of refuge taken in these badlands from expanding empires to the north and south, both of which sought to forcibly convert them to Islam. Their ancestors, who were once patronizingly spoken of as animists, took up residence in…

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