‘Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara’
“Many people will leave “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” so dazzled by examples of the region’s clothing and textiles that hang in the final room that they will miss one of its most powerful, albeit quiet pieces,” writes Howard French. “It is also one of the most recent sculptural creations on view, and a final example of the transition to Islam from some of the traditions that it gradually supplanted. This dark, brooding, encrusted object, all rounded shapes whose style falls just shy of abstract, is suggestive of a hornless black bull with enormous shoulders or a hippopotamus-like beast (see illustration on page 31). The Bamana people of Segu revered sculptures like these as repositories of enormous protective spiritual power; so much so that they were kept in the houses of priests, out of the view of the uninitiated. Such objects were built up slowly through an accretion of material that the catalog says could include “animal bones, vegetal matter, honey, metal, and human remains” coated with “chicken and goat blood, expectorated kola nuts, alcoholic beverages, and millet.”
‘Umar Tall, the jihadist who led his forces eastward into the Sahelian interior after the French colonial incursions in Senegal, sacked Segu in 1861 and executed its leader, Bina Ali, after he refused conversion to Islam. The repression of local religious traditions and the destruction of objects like these, which was an obsession of the jihadists, fostered intense resentment, and the catalog notes that “for the next thirty years, the Bamana maintained an active opposition to the Umarian regime”—a testament to the strength of local “idols.” Considered against the broader sweep of time, however, the capture of Segu by jihadists was a mere blip. With its fall to the French in 1890, the entire millennial history of empire in the Sahel was brought to a close.”
The museum is temporarily closed. Works from the exhibition can be seen at metmuseum.org.
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