Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Out of Africa

Africa has been the focus of multiple exhibitions in the French capital, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Zanzibar, Tanzania

From Trésors de l’Islam en Afrique at the Institut du monde arabe on the left bank of the Seine to l’Afrique des Routes at the Musée du Quai Branly and Afriques Capitales at a converted former industrial site in the northeast of the French capital, Paris is thematising Africa this spring in multiple exhibitions on the religious, economic and artistic life of the continent. 

In so doing, the formidable resources of French curatorial savoir-faire have been brought into play, along with the equally formidable size and depth of French museum collections. French scholars, writers, travelers, and, in the 19th and 20th centuries, colonial administrators have been studying Africa for perhaps longer than comparable figures from any other European country, and France today retains strong economic and cultural links with particularly francophone West Africa and the North Africa region.

It is perhaps these links and these deep-rooted historical connections that have allowed for the bringing together of such a wide range of materials at multiple Paris locations for the present Africa season. Anyone visiting any one of them is sure to want to visit all the others.

The tour starts at the Institut du monde arabe, where a major exhibition on Islam in Africa, Trésors de l’Islam en Afrique, runs until the end of July. While Sub-Saharan Africa, the focus of the exhibition, did not embrace Islam as a result of the Arab conquests that saw the new religion spread across West and Central Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa in the 7th century CE, from the 8th or 9th centuries onwards it began to spread across the continent from multiple entry points, in almost every case as a result of trade. In this respect, the spread of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa is similar to its spread in Southeast Asia, where Islam, spread through trade, is now the main religion of the modern states of Malaysia and Indonesia. 

The first sections of the exhibition outline what is known about the Islamisation of Sub-Saharan Africa, emphasising the various mechanisms and periods involved. In East Africa, the major mechanism was trade, with Arab traders from the Arab Gulf and what are now the modern states of Oman and Yemen moving down the East African coast as far south as Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, today the southernmost member of the Arab League, bringing their religion and language with them. 

Many East African coastal cities, including Mogadishu in today’s Somalia, Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, were originally Arab trading posts or Arab coastal settlements set up to take advantage of interior trade. The vast Swahili language area, today extending down much of the East African coast and penetrating deep inland, bears witness to this important Arab influence, since Swahili, a Bantu language, contains much vocabulary of Arabic origin and was originally written in Arabic characters. 

Another route by which Islam spread in East Africa, though perhaps in a more restricted way, was down the River Nile from Egypt. While the early Arab conquerors of Egypt had halted at what is now the country’s border with Sudan, meaning that Nubia and the areas to the south were not originally Islamised, contacts grew under later Egyptian Islamic dynasties, with the Mamelukes in particular, ruling the country after the end of the Ayyubid Dynasty in the 13th century CE, pushing southwards down the Nile and developing the maritime trading route southwards across the Red Sea. 

However, it was West Africa that became the second most important African cradle of Islam, with today’s West African states of Mali, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and others hosting much of the continent’s contemporary Muslim population. In West Africa there were significant natural obstacles standing in the way of the religion’s spread, chiefly the vast desert zones that separated Muslim North Africa from the rest of the continent to the south. As a result, the Islamisation of West Africa, also in the wake of trade, seems to have taken place at mostly a slow and fitful pace from the 10th century onwards. 

As least at first, Islam seems to have been adopted chiefly by those who had the most direct contact with it – traders, members of the Berber or Tuareg tribes who served as a kind of local interface between North and Sub-Saharan Africa, city-dwellers, and members of local elites. By the 15th century and the flourishing of first the Mali and then the Songhai Empires centred on what is now the modern state of Mali, Islam had become the religion of the elite, with the bulk of the population perhaps still practicing traditional religions.

Islamic manuscripts: The spread of Islam in West Africa during the Mali and Songhai Empires was recently brought home to a wider public by reports of threats to Islamic buildings and manuscripts in Timbuktu and other parts of northern Mali as a result of campaigns targeting the area’s traditional Islamic heritage by the extremist group Ansar Dine.

Following the group’s take-over of areas of northern Mali in 2012, Islamic mausoleums and other structures in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao were destroyed on the grounds that they were “unIslamic,” provoking widespread international protests and eventually French-led military intervention under UN Security Council Resolutions 2071 and 2085. Before this happened, however, many of the manuscripts, threatened by Ansar Dine, were rescued by local people who in many cases had hidden them in their homes.

As the Weekly reported at the time (17 and 31 January 2013), the manuscripts, often dating back to the Songhai Empire, typically consist of unbound folios, most of them written in Arabic and some written in West African languages such as Fulani, Hausa or Wolof using Arabic characters. One of the interests of the Trésors de l’Islam en Afrique exhibition is that it has been able to bring examples of these manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu for display in Paris, helping international audiences to understand more about these African Islamic treasures that so nearly perished in the violence unleashed on the area in 2012. 

The exhibition contains numerous original manuscripts, including early copies of Abdel-Rahman al-Saadi’s Tarikh al-Sudan (History of the Sudan), written in the mid-17th century, and Tarikh al-Fettach by Mahmoud Ka’ati (1652/3), which provide accounts of West African history until 1655, in the case of Tarikh al-Sudan, and 1599, in the case of Tarikh al-Fettach. Both were written by West African Muslim scholars, and both indicate a high level of historical consciousness, with Tarikh al-Sudan in particular being the most important African primary source for the history of the Songhai Empire. 

Also in this part of the exhibition, early copies of a 16th-century work on Islamic law by West African scholar Salah al-Din al-Safadi, an 18th-century work on geography by Mohamed al-Gharnati, and a work on tobacco, Al-lamighti isharat hukm al-tabagh, by leading Timbuktu scholar Ahmed Baba (1556-1627) are on display. Ahmed Baba, one of the best-known of the community of Muslim scholars working in Mali at the time, was taken to Marrakech in Morocco by invading Moroccan armies in 1591, remaining there until the early years of the next century. The Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, named in his honour, is today an important repository of West African Islamic manuscripts.

Out of Africa

This part of the exhibition, accompanied by a France Télévisions documentary on efforts to save the manuscripts from Ansar Dine forces in 2012 and 2013, is particularly interesting because it helps to dispel perceptions, still sometimes heard, that Sub-Saharan Africa has no written history. This idea is confronted early on in the exhibition in curatorial commentary addressing the still sometimes vexed issue of source materials for the reconstruction of pre-colonial African history. From at least the early 19th century onwards, European travellers, scholars, and eventually colonial administrators began to record what they saw on visits to Sub-Saharan Africa, later producing standard accounts of African history. At the same time, material remains and excavations of urban and other sites began to provide important insights into the Continent’s sometimes mysterious early history.

In addition to these materials, however, there are the written accounts produced by the Africans themselves, though as the materials from the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu on show in the exhibition reveal these were produced largely by Islamised, possibly even Arabised, religious scholars. Their work may not have much to say about the surrounding non-Muslim African populations, even if it remains crucial to the understanding of the early Mali and Songhai Empires. 

According to the exhibition, the work of Arab travellers and chroniclers who may have visited Sub-Saharan Africa from the mediaeval period onwards and left written records of their journeys also provides important testimony particularly of the West African Muslim Empires. Writings by men like the Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi (1364-1442), the Mameluke historian al-Umari (1300-1349), the early Arab geographer Ibn Hawqal (943-969) and the celebrated Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) have much to say about Sub-Saharan Africa, typically seeing it as a source of enormous wealth, as well as potential danger, with non-Islamic areas of Africa being reservoirs of paganism.

Ibn Battuta, who visited Timbuktu in the early 1350s, emphasises the wealth of the Mali Empire, as does al-Umari writing on the passage of the Malian emperor Munsa through Cairo in 1324 on his way to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. 



OUTES THROUGH AFRICA: The Trésors de l’Islam en Afrique exhibition continues on a second floor with materials on the later history of Islam in Africa, including the wider-scale Islamisation of West and East Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries, the role played by Islamic revivalist and Sufi orders across the Continent, and consideration of particularly West Africa’s characteristic Islamic architecture.

Across the River Seine at the Musée du Quai Branly a parallel exhibition, l’Afrique des Routes, running until November, addresses some of the same themes, this time from an anthropological and less exclusively Islamic perspective. As the title of the exhibition reveals, trade and other networks on the African Continent form the focus of the show, with the various routes that structure communications on the Continent – overland, river-based, or by sea – having long been used not only for purposes of trade, but also to spread ideas, languages, technologies, artistic forms, and religions.

“Africa has always been an open continent,” the exhibition says, rejecting ideas that Africa has somehow historically been closed off to the wider world, only being opened up to international influences by 19th-century European exploration and later colonisation. Like the Trésors de l’Islam en Afrique exhibition, l’Afrique des Routes examines interfaces and entry points, among them the Arab settlements on the East African coast, the trade and other routes crossing the desert zones between North and Sub-Saharan Africa, and the arrival of the Europeans in West Africa from the 15th century onwards and their settlements on the coast.

Such entry points swiftly joined up to routes, creating networks structured around nodal points in the form of towns and other settlements designed to speed up the import into Africa of ideas, technologies, materials and manufactured goods and the export of raw materials and from the 17th century onwards human populations in the form of the enslaved Africans shipped across the Atlantic by European slave-traders to work in the mines and plantations of the Caribbean and Latin and North America. 

As was the case in the Institut du monde arabe exhibition, the written and other source materials for the reconstruction of pre-colonial African history are significantly thematised, with the exhibition looking at what can be learned from excavations of urban settlements and other sites, material remains, ancient Greek and Roman accounts of the settlement of particularly North Africa by the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans in antiquity, the writings of Arab travelers and historians, and, from the late 15th century onwards, the accounts of the early European travelers and historians. 

While the early Mali and Songhai Empires in West Africa are known about from the writings of Arab travelers and historians and West African scholars, the only early written records of more southerly African civilisations, among them the Edo in what is now Benin, the Mutapha (in northern Zimbabwe), and the Kong and the Loango (in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo), have come down to us largely through their trade with Portugal, the exhibition says.

Like the Institut du monde arabe exhibition, too, the intention behind the Quai Branly show seems to have been at least in part polemical. Africa has a history, the exhibition says, and one that is very much connected in multiple ways with that of the outside world. If that history has in the past been discounted or misunderstood, this is because insufficient ingenuity has been expended in making use of the records that exist, these being perhaps unusually disparate and taking the form of written sources in multiple languages and from multiple origins, along with the results of archaeological excavations and anthropological investigations.

In a final room, the exhibition includes an interactive display showing the historical routes taken by foreign travelers in Africa, broadly speaking from the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta in the 14th century onwards. Here visitors can trace the routes taken by European travelers (“explorers”) in the heroic age of African exploration, including the famous journeys undertaken by Stanley in East Africa and Brazza in West Africa, as well as by Livingstone, Burton and Speke (searching for the source of the Nile), Cameron, Barth and Clapperton. 



FRICAN CAPITALS: Moving across Paris to La Villette, a converted former industrial site in the northeast of the French capital, for the Afriques Capitales exhibition that runs until the end of May, is a passage across time as well as space since this exhibition, bringing together work by over three dozen African contemporary artists, brings visitors face-to-face with contemporary creativity in Africa.

Hosted by the Grande Halle de la Villette, a converted industrial building, the show can feel like an African amusement park, with the kind of academic solemnity that hangs over exhibitions in institutions on the Left Bank of the French capital dissipating in favour of families with pushchairs, groups of young people watching performance art, and sometimes enormous installations filling the space of the Grande Halle on a visitor route that has seemingly been designed to wind its way through the building like an obstacle course.

Among the largest pieces on show are Egyptian artist Youssef Limoud’s Labyrinth (2017), an enormous mound of what look like concrete slabs or shards, visible as soon as visitors enter the space, and Cameroonian artist Pascale-Marthine Tayou’s sculptures Falling Houses (2014), which, as the name suggests, consist of full-scale shanty-type dwellings suspended overhead. Near the back of the hall there is a cinema-style installation, entitled More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015), by South African artist William Kentridge, which plays a continuous loop of larger-than-life cut-out figures projected in what the artist calls an endless danse macabre. 

African-American artist Jean Lamore has decided to exhibit what seems to be a replica of his workroom (entitled Purgatory Theorem, 2017) as his contribution to the exhibition. Cameroonian artist Maurice Perfura has set up a labyrinth of hanging textiles as an installation (Continuum, 2017) designed to “represent the city as a space where one can get lost and be haunted by living phantoms.”

While the scale of the pieces on show may be what immediately strikes the visitor to Afriques Capitales, in line perhaps with the impressive volume of the Grande Halle exhibition space, there is also an emphasis on a variety of media – with the exception of traditional ones such as easel painting. The artists make extensive use of video and installations, sometimes thematising their own bodies and their own ambiguous relationships to social space. The Moroccan performance artist Fatima Mazmouz, for example, has installed a video show of herself, sometimes wearing very few, or very bizarre, clothes, and designed to “interrogate the notion of identity in all its complexity” (Super Oum, 2009).

Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr has installed a sort of wooden simulacrum of a minaret surrounded by a sea of scattered glass balls (The Minaret, 2012), and Ghanaian artist Poku Cheremeh has installed a reconstruction of his childhood bedroom in Accra (Pokoj, 2017).

These works are by turns faintly risible and genuinely thought-provoking, the incongruity of the materials used, their deliberately over-large scales, and their citations from popular or mass culture and rejection of conventional art-historical references being perhaps part of their point. Perhaps particularly memorable are Egyptian artist Heba Amin’s sound and video installation Project Speak2Tweet (2017),which records tweets and other materials produced during the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, and Moroccan artist Leila Alaoui’s 2013 video installation Crossings, which shows videos of refugees from North Africa crossing the Mediterranean.  

Kenyan artist Ato Malinda’s Africa Untitled (2017), an installation in which visitors are invited to rearrange maps of the African Continent, renaming capital cities and moving borders under the eyes of friendly African facilitators in a kind of artistic bingo game, also attracted the crowds and provided a ludic entry point to the wider exhibition.

Trésors de l’Islam en Afrique, de Tombouctou à Zanzibar, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 30 July; l’Afrique des Routes, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, until 12 November; Afriques Capitales, Grande Halle de la Villette, Paris, until 28 May 2017.

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