Two hundred rare objects at the Metropolitan Museum trace the remarkable history and cultural heritage of kingdoms on the rim of the Sahara.
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.