World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean is an enormously important contribution to the field of art history. This opinion does not stem from the vantage point of a seasoned African art historian or the authority that accompanies such a position. It is informed instead by a different but equally important perspective: that of a very new scholar, tenaciously scouring and gathering insights from those who have eminently forged the trails of knowledge ahead of her. However, armed with earnest and fresh inquiries, this particular scholar studies a segment of the field in a region of the world where such pathways have been relatively faint or wispy at best. Thankfully, a solid foundation is now established in the groundbreaking work of editors Prita Meier and Allyson Purpura, who begin to address this lacuna with their hefty and expansive compilation of essays. Twenty-one diverse writers (including the editors) span disciplines, geographies, theories, and styles to deftly reveal and underscore the ways that “Swahili arts prompt us to ‘un-discipline’ art historical canons and museological frameworks that have long kept Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas apart—and in place” (p. 14).
World on the Horizon is the companion publication to the 2017–2018 exhibition of the same name, publicized as
the first major traveling exhibition dedicated to the arts of the Swahili coast and their historically deep and enduring connections to eastern and central Africa, the port towns of the western Indian Ocean, and, given their circulation within imperial networks of trade and diplomacy, to Europe and the eastern seaboard of the United States (p. 13).
The exhibition and publication were made possible in part by two major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The format of this book is less a traditional catalogue with glossy images, object biographies, or descriptive documentation, and more a scholarly contribution with a substantial interdisciplinary academic focus. The combination and range of the essays—while diverse in content and style—is more likely to appeal to specialized readers with an interest in these topics rather than a general audience. A similar level of scholarly density in writing was heavily employed in the exhibition labels and wall texts at the first exhibition venue, the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It is unfortunate that those detailed texts do not appear in the edited volume. Their inclusion would have been a welcome and important addition toward the permanent usefulness of this publication as an enduring and sorely needed reference tool and resource.
Nonetheless, this volume offers contributions as a resource that will reach far beyond the many “firsts” it represents. On one level, it holds immense value as the first interdisciplinary study of Swahili arts in its regional focus. The essays include multidirectional perspectives that radiate out from the Swahili coast as a central fulcrum, where objects are particularly considered as elements of Indian Ocean aesthetic systems and convergences. At a broader level, this compilation of essays also elucidates the exceedingly fluid characteristics of regional vocabularies and networks that have existed for millennia along the eastern coast of Africa. Swahili arts and aesthetic histories are slippery and often defy categorization, which may be one of the reasons so few scholars have addressed them to this extent before now. As art historians in all corners of the world increasingly blur the lines of scholarly investigations to reach beyond the categorical “silo” approach, this publication serves as a welcome example for ways to break down boundaries and integrate expansive, global, interdisciplinary relationships of thought.
The structure of the book is loose, without chapter divisions or thematic groupings to organize it. All eighteen essays are clustered together between two short but compelling texts: a thoughtful introduction by the editors, and an eloquent closing written by preeminent Indian Ocean historian Abdul Sheriff. In “Provocations from the Coast: Toward a Networked History of Swahili Coast Arts,” Purpura and Meier outline the challenges they posed to the authors, including “questions about the open-ended nature of creativity … intercultural entanglements … and the intersection between the local and the global through a range of subjects and vantage points” (p. 20) to be examined through the lens of Swahili culture and aesthetics. In “The Swahili World: Where the Horizons Meet,” Sheriff underscores the importance of these various examinations of Swahili culture “in all its infinite possibilities” (p. 356), along with the need to shift away from narrow ways of thinking “that consider the sea as the end of the world” (p. 357) to open new intellectual explorations. What then at first glance might seem to be a widely disparate mélange turns out to be an ingenious assemblage of thoughtful approaches and explorations of the complex intersections at the heart of the core topic of Swahili culture and aesthetics. The writing styles in World on the Horizon shift from personal reflections to object biographies to in-depth critical treatments to fictional diary transpositions.
For the reader not particularly well versed in East Africa-Indian Ocean-Swahili coast histories, I recommend an unorthodox approach to this book. Begin with Abdul Sheriff's text, then read Stephen Rockel for his clearly outlined overview and strong historiographical references. Turn next to the insightful introduction by the editors, and finally follow the essays in the order they appear, or skip to a scholar with a particular method, framework, or topic with which one identifies. One of the successes inherent in the format and compilation of this volume is that it informs in part and in whole.
In their object-driven inquiries, Athman Hussein (carved doors), MacKenzie Moon Ryan (kanga cloth), and Nancy Um (kiti cha enzi) give us writing that is clearly argued, well researched, tightly written, beautifully illustrated, and packed with supporting visual and formal descriptions. Jeremy Prestholdt, too, expertly contextualizes a single object—a portrait of nineteenth-century diplomat Ahmad bin Na'aman that appeared in the exhibition—with a historical, social, and economic overview of the Sultana's 1840 voyage from Zanzibar to New York and the accordant development of the Swahili coast.
Essays by Edward Alpers and Allen F. Roberts reconfigure for us the pluralities of the Swahili coast fulcrum. Alpers examines the differences between the four cardinal directions of the Swahili horizon, while Roberts offers observations on Swahili exchange systems from a Central African perspective. Similarly, Allan deSouza twists our view from the outside in (or the inside out, depending upon how you read it) in his brilliant work of fiction filled with poignant and relevant insights.
Pedro Machado weaves together rich histories and complex definitions assigned to textiles as part of layered processes of social, political, and cultural exchange in Indian Ocean production and trading systems. He sheds light as well on the transformative role that cloth has played in consumer and production circuits with global extensions and links that reach far beyond the Indian Ocean. Alternatively, Paola Ivanov asks us to “transcend the economistic category of consumption and to focus instead on the role played by material and immaterial aesthetic forms in the generation of the self and society on the Swahili coast” (p. 217). Most of the authors in this volume necessarily address the layered relationship between material culture and identity formation, and Ivanov examines the complexities of that topic deftly.
The remaining essays represent valuable contributions in scholarship that are equally important as those highlighted above but are not addressed individually in the interest of brevity. The authors not previously mentioned include Nidhi Mahajan, Fahad Bishara, Sarah Longair, Janet McIntosh, Rebecca Gearhart Mafazy, Jeffrey Fleisher, Ann Biersteker, and Heike Behrend.
A list of the lenders to the exhibition appears at the end of the volume, as does a checklist of more than 150 objects from the exhibition. Fifty-four of the objects are documented in color images that are spaced throughout the volume in four short sections (see pp. 22–31, 103–12, 174–87, 265–73), many of them beautifully photographed by Chris Brown Photography. More than a third of the 128 illustrations feature artworks never before published.
The compilation of essays in this volume illuminates the Swahili coast and its role as a point of global and cultural convergence, while simultaneously reframing and reconfiguring more traditional approaches to art history. One publication cannot singlehandedly address every void in scholarship and there is much to be done to further uncover and connect African histories around the Indian Ocean Rim to South Asia, the Gulf, through North Africa to the Mediterranean, Europe, and beyond. However, the work in World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean forms the beginnings of a new and necessary pathway as a solid and important beginning upon which many future efforts may be built.