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The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue

Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara

Equestrian, Bura-Asinda-Sikka Site, Niger, 3rd–10th century. Terracotta. Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines, Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey, Niger. Photo: © Photo Maurice Ascani. www.photographe-niger.com
Equestrian, Bura-Asinda-Sikka Site, Niger, 3rd–10th century. Terracotta. Institut de Recherches en Sciences Humaines, Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey, Niger. Photo: © Photo Maurice Ascani. www.photographe-niger.com
On View
The Metropolitan Museum Of Art
Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara
January 30 – May 10, 2020
New York

The Sahel is an enormous region of Western Africa, 500 by 1500 kilometers, running from the interior to the Atlantic coast. The word Sahel means “shore” in Arabic, an apt name for this vast area, a “shore” south of the Sahara Desert, and north of the tropical rainforest. Relatively unfamiliar as an art historical unit, the Western Sahel, now divided between Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, has a complicated history. A wealthy trading region during the Christian Middle Ages, this region had converted to Islam, in ways that did not entirely erase its prior religious traditions. More recently the French colonized it.

This pioneering exhibition of 200 works includes sculptures, fabrics, and some manuscripts, supplemented with detailed maps, useful captions, a massive catalogue, and a video. At the entrance is the three-ton Megalith (8th–9th century) from Senegal constructed, most likely, by highly mobile herder-farmers. Next comes the Female Body (Venus of Thiaroye) (before 2000 B.C.), a tiny sandstone figure, carved just enough to indicate the outlines of her body. Then we see a number of sculptures of men on horseback. I especially admired the great Torso of an Equestrian (3rd–11th century), the fragmented Equestrian (3rd–10th century), and the very different, Equestrian (12th–14th century), three terracotta works. Horses were important in the Sahel, initially for ceremonial riding, and then in warfare; sometimes the export sale of slaves paid for them. Here, the more naturalistic works were made before the stick figures, which is just the opposite of what one might expect. A little further on, Reclining Figure (12th–14th century), from Mali, is an androgynous naturalistic terracotta work, while the Heads (3rd–11th century) from Niger are heavily stylized, with narrow horizontal eye markings. And the bronze Male Figure (9th–14th century) shows a sculpted man who wears a decorative necklace and a mysterious elaborate hat.

Kneeling Female Figure with Crossed Arms, Middle Niger civilization, Mali, 12th–14th century. Terracotta. The Menil Collection, Houston. Courtesy the Menil Collection.

This first portion of Sahel thus is organized like an art exhibition, with works on individual pedestals. But then you see sculptures in a vitrine. Especially impressive is the group of tall, thin elongated wood figures, where Male Warrior (1120-1210), with its richly decorated face mask and bracelets, is the most spectacular sculpture. This organization respects the nature of these materials, artworks, which are hard to date and attribute. As the catalogue notes, often these works were removed without making a record of the site, a procedure that destroyed potentially essential evidence. In the nineteenth century when most of these sculptures would have been too unlike any known Western art to fit into the art museums, they were sent to anthropological museums. And in Paris in the 1930s the Surrealists admired the elongated slim Figure (late 15th–early 17th century), made from wood, which looks not unlike Giacometti’s sculptures. Today, of course, it can be appreciated in non-reductive ways as art.

Where (art historically) do these works come from? And what is their significance within the cultures that made them? These important questions are extremely difficult to answer. We don’t know with any precision when many of them were made. And generally, we have little knowledge about their function. Female Figure with Raised Arm (15th–17th century), for example, has a raised left arm, perhaps —so the catalogue speculates—because she was joined to some structure, which hasn’t survived. And look closely at the enigmatic Kneeling Figure (12th–14th century), a terracotta figure in which the body is covered with rows of raised bumps, which may be decorative but could rather portray bodily afflictions. The wealth of historical narratives in the catalogue doesn’t readily tell us how to understand the history of this art.

Part of the difficulty in understanding these works is that they’re from a large region, with a complicated development. But also, of course, we don’t have much sense of how good a sample this exhibition provides of the art made in this region. The catalogue essay by Souleymane Bachir Diagne, who is a professor at Columbia University, says that in some Sahel cultures, “to be, to exist, is to be a force.” These forces include God, minerals, plants, animals, and humans, both living people and their ancestors. And, he adds, “The purpose of the force is to be more force.” Art is a manifestation of these forces. This suggestive account doesn’t really explain how to interpret these deeply mysterious objects.

Reclining Figure, Middle Niger civilization, Jenne-jeno, Mali 12th–14th century. Terracotta. Musée National du Mali, Bamako. Photo: Musée National du Mali.

Sometimes the best way to get a complex exhibition into focus is to walk around the museum, comparing and contrasting other artworks so as to better understand what’s at hand. Sahel is on the first floor of the Met. One flight of stairs takes you to the Islamic galleries, with their presentation of calligraphy, decorative tiles, large carpets, and book illustrations. In the Formation of Islamic Art (1973), Oleg Grabar explains how difficult it is to spell out the visually distinctive features of this art, which comes from a large region that developed over a long period. Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara also gathers artworks from an extended region. And in addition to the sculptures I have mentioned, we find here some marvelous fabrics, Bogolan Wrap (before 1910), for example; some gold jewelry; and images of mosques. Is it possible, then, to identify the visually distinctive features of this Sahel art? That question also seems as yet very hard to answer.

The Sahel, a far Western region, was a relatively marginal part of the Islamic world. That Islam here was tolerant of a plurality of cultural practices perhaps explains why there is so much figurative sculpture in this show. “The formation of Islamic art can be seen,” Grabar concludes, “as an accumulation and novel distribution of forms from all over the conquered world . . . .” Perhaps this same analysis applies also, with qualification, to art from the Sahel. But more research is needed. This show will please the aesthete, challenge the aesthetician, and fascinate the historian and the political activist. Assembling amazing art, much of it visually spectacular; presenting an extremely revealing art historical challenge; and providing the basis a much-needed commentary on urgent present-day politics: “Sahel” does what museums ought to do.


  • Souleymane Bachir Diagne, “Praying for Life,” Alisa Lagamma, Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020), 252.
  • Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), 210.


David Carrier

David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

All Issues