Self-governed for all but sixty-five years of French colonial rule, the peoples of the western Sahel formed a succession of storied empires and kingdoms, from ancient Ghana (ca. 300–1200), Mali (ca. 1230–1600), and Songhay (ca. 1464–1591) to Bamana Segu (ca. 1712–1861) and the Umarian state (ca. 1850–90).
As these shifting centers of political power rose and fell, distinct visual forms of expression evolved alongside them in a variety of media, from mud to precious metals. The early accounts of foreign visitors to glittering Sahelian courts captivated the world at large with the lure of new sources of gold. Islam’s arrival in the seventh century introduced literacy and the scriptural translation of regional languages. Over the ensuing centuries, the rich traditions of the peoples of the Sahel expanded to encompass that new faith.
The show runs through May 10th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.