With nearly three hundred objects, L'Afrique des Routes participated in an important trend in scholarship that can be thought of as globalizing the past. Its focus on movement and exchange was timely and the show moved beyond well-known encounters like the trans-Saharan trade, Afro-Portuguese ivories, and European Modernism to emphasize the diversity of contacts and responses across time and geography.
The curators intended to combat the image of a closed and isolated continent and “to write Africa into world history,” according to the opening text panel. To do so, they reframed African histories as a series of exchanges, demonstrating that colonial and contemporary networks were built upon much older patterns of connectivity. The exhibition opened with 3,000-year-old Saharan rock art, grouped with Hausa saddles and gear from the twentieth century on one side and with a photo-mural of a caravan on the other (ca. 1906, although in an unusual omission, the date was not given on the label). This striking display encapsulated the tensions between specificity and scope inherent in a project of this kind. Squeezing objects from vastly different eras together might immediately undermine the fight against that image of timeless, unchanging Africa; on the other hand, the display also decisively claimed travel as an African concern of deep antiquity.
The exhibition was divided into seven thematic sections. Interstitial areas demarcated by red walls (Fig. 1) focused on the histories of human movement in different eras, offering useful timelines and objects relating to those eras, from the familiar (colonial-era postcards) to the more unusual (a cast of a Dahomey palace relief depicting a European ship, an emblem of the eighteenth-century ruler Agaja). In general, the exhibition provided a high level of information about the objects displayed and their historical settings, and it incorporated new media technologies effectively, including recorded sound played over audio-guides or mobile phones, interactive touchscreens, and animated maps.
The first section, “Routes and Modes of Transport,” contained objects testifying to land and water voyages. The next gallery focused on “Cities,” the milestones of travel, and presented an exciting array of ancient and medieval objects linked to early African sites including Nok, Sao, Great Zimbabwe, and Jenne-Jeno, as well as Carthage and Meroë, among others. It was thrilling to be confronted with a great head of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus alongside an evocative fragment of a Nok ceramic figure, the sense of presence in its one bright eye transcending its modest size. In a clever piece of design, the bases of the pedestals were also maps of the objects' places of origin, and these and the texts emphasized that cities were not isolated but part of historic networks.
The next gallery, “Commercial Routes,” grouped objects by material (metals, beads, cloth, porcelain, etc.). Exploring the complex and sometimes circular routes of high-value materials, this section highlighted some of the ingenious uses to which imported objects and materials can be put, whether as currencies, art materials, or both. This section also recalled the Africanity of many Western treasures that are too often stripped of their origins, from ivory to electronics. A 2008 photograph by Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo of a worker in a Ghanaian e-waste field brought the cycles of export-import-transformation, and their hidden costs, vividly into the present.
“Religious and Spiritual Routes” was the strongest section and contained several of the outstanding objects in the exhibition. With more material, this section also made use of stimulating groupings conveying the breadth and flexibility of certain enduring forms, often ambiguous figures of power like the water spirit Mami Wata (Fig. 2). A Baga sibondel, a brilliantly colored ark-like masquerade that represents the winged horse (Al-buraq) of Islamic lore (Fig. 3), was similarly accompanied by popular images of the subject from Syria and Senegal—it has traveled far afield from its original iconography. Other major world faiths were represented in a series of small groupings. For example, an ensemble of objects from the African diaspora showed them with some continental African counterparts, while Haitian artist Myrlande Constant's beaded vodou flag shone out with its shimmering surface and dense, distinctive iconography (Fig. 4). This section demonstrated how frequent and fruitful appropriation has been in the realm of spiritual exploration.
In “Aesthetic Routes,” the mode of argumentation shifted away from historical information towards visual comparison. The displays here were dynamic, with the rhythmic presentation of horned West African masks being particularly effective at honoring the masks' individual brilliance while suggesting shared traits. At the same time, the visual argumentation was vulnerable to misleading placement: for example, a Baga banda mask and a Diola ejumba mask were placed side by side in a case, with the banda installed exactly vertically (rather than horizontally or at an angle, as it was worn), perhaps due to space or perhaps to stretch its faint resemblance to the ejumba. Other groupings in this section included Niger delta metalworks, prestige objects used by Luba, Lunda, and Chokwe leaders, and a row of funerary post sculptures from a sweeping range of East African and Asian origins (Fig. 5). Regrettably, some outstanding pieces were crowded awkwardly against walls or in narrow passages.
In “Colonial Routes,” the exhibition's texts, maps, and a short didactic video addressed colonization in frank prose (as did earlier interstitials dealing with slavery). In addition to objects dealing with natural resource exploitation, conflicts, and European modernism, this area included reflexive texts and ensembles that addressed the ethics of collecting ethnographic and art objects. Among many sepia-toned items here, a case of archival images and notes from the Dakar-Djibouti expedition was of particular interest given its significant, contested legacy for ethnographers and art historians.
An “epilogue” of contemporary art, “The Nation of Artists,” concluded the exhibition but felt like an afterthought (Fig. 6). The assertion of the “nation of artists” (i.e., artists as global citizens who transcend boundaries) seemed simplistic—particularly when placed next to the final works in the colonial section, two photographic series that deal directly with the realities of borders for many Africans who cross them (Patrick Zachmann, Maliens ici et la-bas, 1994; Olivier Jobard, Kingsley: Carnet de route d'un immigré clandestine, 2001). Most of the works in this final section engaged with history and politics, whether in the sharply playful mode of Yinka Shonibare, MBE's model-ship sculpture La Méduse (2008), or in the memory-recovery of Kader Attia's The Repair (2012), a changing photographic diptych of colonial “types” and injured soldiers. Here, and with the contemporary artworks scattered through the other sections, the organizers seemed to miss an opportunity to connect the moral questions raised in the works to the exhibition's other contents. These works opened critical perspectives on the present-day realities of the themes—not just evidence of the “routes” but pointed critiques of them.
L'Afrique des Routes reveled in the diversity of faiths, trades, and cultural exchanges to be found across and beyond the continent, taking in popular art forms along with classical pieces, archival documents and even nonartifacts like botanical samples. Its inclusion of contemporary art, if sometimes awkward, was nevertheless commendable. The organizers did not gloss over difficult episodes of slavery and colonization, but addressed them sensitively. But perhaps because of its breadth and diversity of themes, the exhibition was unable to delve deeply into any “route,” place, or moment.
For experts, this meant that it did not present much that was new. Nevertheless, it offered many pleasures and held some surprises—like a 1741 votive painting of a French slave ship, Le Saphir, showing tiny black figures raising their arms heavenward. In a setting where we often see objects sorted by their region or group, disconnected from one another as from their origins, L'Afrique des Routes drew them into conversation.
A publication is available in French: Catherine Co query-Vidrovitch (ed.), L'Afrique des Routes (Paris: Editions Quai Branly and Actes Sud; 256 pp., 168 ill., €37.90 paper).