CHAMPAIGN — A new exhibition on Swahili arts at Krannert Art Museum tells a lot of stories, says Allyson Purpura, one of its curators.
The 130 or so objects — some of which have never been shown in the United States — tell of the reach of Swahili arts and culture into the African interior and across the Indian Ocean, said Purpura, who along with former University of Illinois art history Professor Prita Meier organized "World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean."
"It's like a mirror into the arts of this region of cultural influence," Purpura said. "It's about mobility, connectivity — the movement of people, objects and ideas. Some of that connectivity is an exchange between people motivated by commercial interests. So, it's also a story about the politics of trade and of empire."
The exhibition also "asks visitors to think, 'Where does Africa begin and end?'"
"After all, Africa and the Swahili coast have been global for millennia," said Purpura, Krannert's curator of global African art.
The Indian Ocean has long been a major trade highway between East Africa, the Arab world and Asia — the exhibition emphasizes that and the influences those cultures have had on one another.
The items on display range from large architectural elements such as lintels, or intricately carved door frames, to stunning jewelry, much of it made with silver, gold and ivory including chunky bracelets worn by men.
The exhibition is organized around six themes, or sections.
For example, "In the Presence of Words" recognizes the importance of language and devotional texts, among them illuminated Qurans, or Korans, and other Arabic manuscripts from Kenya.
It also features amulet jewelry that hold passages from the Quran or medicinal inscriptions — to protect the wearers — and bicycle mud flaps emblazoned with jaunty, fun Swahili proverbs or adages.
The "Architecture of the Port" area features the lintels, with India's influence showing up in the vegetal decorations and arched doorways.
Another section, "Trading the Gaze: Photography on the Swahili Coast," features studio photography from the 1950s and '60s and historic portrait postcards from two studios that were active from the '50s to '70s along the Swahili coast.
"At Home in the World: Swahili Interiors" focuses on everyday objects such as embellished spoons, coconut graters, vessels from Oman, furnishings, an intricately woven mat from Zanzibar, and majestic, carved chairs used in ceremonies.
Considered seats of power, the chairs were used by elites, sultans and their honored guests; they could be disassembled and moved, Purpura said.
Some of the most interesting items in the exhibition are the platform sandals in "Ocean of Adornment."
Worn by the elite and made of wood, silver and other materials, they denote high status and were often donned for sitting and in portraiture — but not for walking.
There also are ear spools — worn in holes in the ear lobes — made of gold and other metals, and paper.
"Between Land and Sea: Objects in Motion" show luxury items such as ivory horns, staffs, jewelry, ornate boxes, and a silk coat given to diplomats by the Sultan of Zanzibar.
They tell of how diplomacy was closely linked to commercial interests and the giving of gifts.
The objects come from 28 lenders, among them the National Museums of Kenya and the Bait Al Zubair Museum in Oman, 15 other museums and private collections.
The show is the first traveling exhibition to focus on the culture along the Swahili coast; after it closes March 24 at Krannert Art Museum it will travel to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the Fowler Museum at UCLA.
The exhibition also represents the largest grants ever given to Krannert Art Museum by the National Endowment for the Humanities — $60,000 for planning and $325,000 to cover the costs of shipping, crating and cleaning the objects; designing the displays and custom mounts for some of the items; and creating educational materials.
Purpura and co-curator Prita Meier, now on faculty at New York University, spent four years organizing the exhibition. They each made three summer trips to Kenya, Zanzibar and Oman to look at the collections in museums and in private collections and to negotiate loan agreements for the objects they wanted for the exhibition.
An exhibition catalog co-authored by the two is scheduled to be published in early winter. It will be the first interdisciplinary look at Swahili visual arts and material culture and their reach beyond the East African coast, with original research and essays by prominent scholars who study the region.
Other exhibitions opening tonight at Krannert:
— "Propositions on Revolution (Slogans for the Future)," part of a UI series of programs marking the centennial of the Russian Revolution. It features contemporary artworks to spark conversations about the broader concept of revolution, and photogravures made by British artist Tacita Dean from postcards depicting disasters.
— "Coveting Nature: Art, Collecting, and Natural History in Early Modern Europe," featuring prints and illustrated publications by various artists, and a new Krannert acquisition, Anna Ruysch's circa 1690s oil painting, "Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Vase on a Stone Ledge," plus contemporary prints and a botanical sculpture.
— School of Art + Design Faculty Exhibition, an annual showcase of new work in a variety of media and artistic disciplines, created by art and design faculty at the university.
If you go
What: Krannert Art Museum Council hosts a public opening reception for the opening of fall exhibitions: "World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean," School of Art + Design Faculty Exhibition, "Coveting Nature: Art, Collecting, and Natural History in Early Modern Europe" and "Propositions on Revolution (Slogans for a Future)."
When: 6 to 7 p.m. today, with museum remaining open until 9 p.m.
Where: Krannert Art Museum, 500 E. Peabody Drive, C.
Admission: Free, with $3 suggested donation.
Note: Allyson Purpura, senior curator at the museum, and Prita Meier, assistant professor of art history at New York University, will give opening comments at 6 p.m. on "World on the Horizon," which they co-curated.