Desert Empires: Wonders to Behold

Bucket lists form early. When I was, maybe, 10, flipping through books in my grandfather’s house I came across a photograph of the Great Mosque at Djenné in Mali, West Africa, and thought, this is the strangest, most wonderful, most outer-space building I’ve ever seen. Beige-color and turreted, it was as soft-edged as a sand castle, but huge, dwarfing people in street. I wanted to go there.

I eventually did — stood, rapt, gazing at the Great Mosque’s walls in sunlight and moonlight. And on a visit last week to the exhibition “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I felt a little like I was there again, but now with other extraterrestrial sights to take in, including sculptures as sublime as the mosque itself.

Sahel derives from the Arabic word for shore or coast. It was the name given by traders crossing the oceanic Sahara centuries ago to the welcoming grasslands that marked the desert’s southern rim, terrain that now includes modern Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. On the evidence of art from the Sahel, the culture that travelers encountered must have looked like a rich but bewildering hybrid. The art still does, which may be one reason it stands, in the West, somewhat outside an accepted “African” canon.

The West has always viewed Africa narrowly, categorically, as a way of exerting control. So African art means carved-wood or metal sculpture in stand-alone “tribal” styles that never change. Or it means riffs on forms borrowed from somewhere else — Renaissance Europe, say, or the greater Islamic world. One way or the other, African art is a thing. You can recognize it instantly, and put it by itself in a case with a label.

The Met show demonstrates otherwise. One look around tells you that the story here is variety within variety, difference talking to difference. New ideas spring from local soil and arrive from afar. Ethnicities and ideologies both collide and embrace. Cultural influences get swapped, dropped, and recouped in a multitrack sequencing that is the very definition of history.

To assert that the art of Africa has a history, or histories, is very much the show’s goal. And if the history of art from the Sahel is difficult to map that’s because so much has disappeared. Nature and ideologically driven destruction have seen to that. Much has been displaced by amateur digging and looting. Untold amounts of material still lie hidden in the ground.

Given all that, the 200 hundred objects gathered at the Met are, simply by being here, a wonder to behold. And the show’s organizers — Alisa LaGamma, curator in charge of the department of arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas; associate curator Yaëlle Biro; and research associate Hakimah Abdul-Fattah — have skillfully shaped that wonder into a linear narrative.

It’s introduced by two sculptures that are among the oldest on view and feel monumental in very different ways. A seven-foot-tall megalith, dating from the 8th- 9th century A.D. is by far the show’s largest work. But with its russet surface and plump V shape it has a hunkering delicacy. The second sculpture is much older — pre-2000 B.C. — small: pebble-size. But with a few lightly incised tweaks a resourceful artist has conjured an icon of procreative female power.

What the intended meaning or ritual use of these objects actually was, we don’t know. But they provide a baseline of antiquity for the curators to build a history on. And so they do, plotting it almost diagrammatically, by dates and themes, in two rows of mini-galleries with a wide path between. And they line the path with a kind of honor guard of a dozen equestrian sculptures in terra-cotta, metal and wood.

The cavalcade is a beautiful idea. The images, produced over a wide time span, from the 3rd and 19th centuries, by cultures in present-day Mali and Niger, are widely varied in media, style and probably function, but lined up together they suggest a kind of symbolic solidarity, an affirmation of the integrity and complexity, past and present, of something called the Sahel.

A major invasive event during that time span was the coming of Islam, which hit the Sahel shores in the 7th century, and stayed, and spread. Because Islam introduced literacy, it had pervasive and subversive impact. But, maybe in an effort to correct an old view that Islam was responsible for Sahel culture’s vitality, neither it nor any other outside trans-Saharan force is given a center stage in the show.

(A traveling exhibition called “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa,” organized by the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, addresses these interactions. The show is at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto through Feb. 23, and moves on to the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.)

The focus instead is on indigenous art that either predated the widespread adoption of Islam in the Sahel, or remained relatively untouched by it.

Textile fragments from the Bandiagara region of central Mali, which are some of the oldest to survive in Africa, fit into this description. So does the extravagantly filigreed disk known as the “Rao Pectoral,” a Senegalese national treasure that is also a glowing advertisement for the genius of African goldsmithing.

But it is sculpture, and specifically some 20 terra-cotta and wood Middle Niger figures, that forms the visual and emotional heart of the show. At least one of these pieces is world-famous: a half-reclining terra-cotta figure, androgynous, headless, superbly detailed, and found by the archaeologists at the site of Djenné-Djeno, an ancient city in what is now Mali that was mysteriously abandoned around 1400 A.D.

Whatever the crisis — political? or economic? environmental? — that led to the city’s demise seems to have affected that entire region. And it was preceded by an almost convulsive surge of artistic creativity that generated some of the moving sculptures ever made, including those seen here.

In one, a figure of ambiguous gender presses its head to the earth as if in grief or prayer. In another, a woman folds her arms across her bare chest in a gesture of devotion or self-protection. In a third, a tall, curving wood-carved figure with hermaphroditic features has the en pointe grace of a Chartres saint. Some forms are nearly abstract; worshipers with tuning-fork bodies reach up beseechingly toward the sky. And some exhibit a kind of pathological realism, as in the case of a terra-cotta figure whose body sprouts tumor-like knobs. (Like most ritual clay figures of the time, this one was probably made by a woman.)

The exhibition concludes with still more Sahel sculpture, a magnificent ensemble of large-scale figures carved from wood by the Bamana people of Mali in the 18th through 20th centuries. Together they represent a type of “African art” we’ve been accustomed thinking of as typical, or “classical.” Yet by the time you’ve arrived at this end point in the show you’ve learned that, in the culture of the Sahel, there is no “typical,” no one style, no one “Africa,” and that’s an invaluable lesson.

And, these days, the Met’s gorgeous show is the place to learn it. Vast areas of the Sahel, specifically Mali, are politically turbulent, and difficult, if not impossible, to access. (Recent United States government travel advisories have declared northern and central part of the country, which includes Djenné, a no-go zone for tourists. “Do not travel to Mali due to crime, terrorism, and kidnapping,” is how they put it.) It won’t be that way forever. I can’t wait to go back. It’s still on my must-see list. I’ll never take it off.

Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara

Through May 10 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Manhattan; 212-535-7710,

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