A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Sahel: Arts and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara, runs from January 30 to May 10, 2020. The exhibit on life in the Sahel region before and during colonialism puts on display 200 objects from the empires of Ghana (300–1200), Mali (1230–1600), Songhay (1464–1591), and Segu (1640–1861).
Dr. Mamadou Diouf, a consultant on the exhibit and director of Columbia University’s Institute for African Studies, explained to Quartz that the exhibit is partially a corrective to the narrative of West Africa as a perpetual conflict zone, with the ongoing terrorist insurgency in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso dominating headlines about these countries.
It is also a way to interrogate the legacy of these artifacts, how they ended up being displayed in museums thousands of miles away from their places or origin, and whether restitution is in order to begin addressing the damaging legacy of the Euro-American slave trade and subsequent colonialism.
The exhibition is the first of its kind for a major American institution, which highlights a somewhat paradoxical issue of the lack of effort put into assembling a sizeable collection of artifacts from non-Western regions of the world.
The objects on display show an oft-ignored side of African history, a precolonial one that differs in several respects from the colonial powers that came later. A gravestone from 1119 in Gao, modern-day Mali, depicts a queen who did not come to power through royal lineage or by marriage; and a 15th-century map depicts Malian emperor Mansa Musa and his immense gold wealth, which would draw France’s attention to the region a couple of centuries later.
Countering one-sided historical narratives in favor of promoting a more nuanced depiction of these civilizations has its obvious benefits and merits, but museums have to consider the call to repatriate cultural objects in the possession of European and American museums. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris, which alone holds 46,000 African artifacts, most of which were looted during France’s military conquest and colonization of the region, loaned some of its collection to The Met for the Sahel exhibit. The labels next to these loaned items make no mention of the words “looted” or “stolen”, and are written in the passive voice to obscure how France really acquired these objects. There is no mention of the growing demand for repatriation of stolen cultural artifacts.