The vast expanse of the Sahara, the world's largest desert, has been likened to an ocean. Arab travelers crossing this immense body of sand thought of the lands on the Sahara's southern rim as a distant shore, or sahel. That landscape, which extends more than nine hundred miles from the Atlantic coast to the Niger River bend, is a region of ecological transition from desert to grassland. The earliest settlers who adapted to this delicate environment balanced farming its river basins with moving herds between harvested fields and the desert's edge. In the late seventh century, Berber caravans expanded already thriving trade networks to encompass trans-Saharan routes. As a crossroads of cultural exchange, the western Sahel, in particular, was also the birthplace of singular artistic traditions.
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.
Our most immediate points of connection to these earlier epochs are the artistic creations that survive them, from rugged stone monuments to portable altars assembled from organic matter. This exhibition—drawn from the national collections of Niger, Mali, Senegal, and Mauritania and including key works now in Europe and the United States—breaks with precedent to survey the full diversity of Sahelian visual culture against the backdrop of historical milestones that shaped what became an epicenter of global exchange during the second millennium.
Media coverage has come to define the Sahel in terms of the challenges faced by the region today: increasing desertification owing to climate change, security threats from extremists, and perilous desert and ocean crossings faced by migrants. Beyond these headlines, however, the earlier history that informs its dynamic cultural traditions and vibrant, multilayered past is less well known.
Despite the fact that material creations—ranging from ephemeral adobe landmarks to cast-bronze regalia—constitute primary sources for investigation, these have been viewed for the most part as "timeless" forms of expression. Instead, our principal sources of historical information on the Sahel's deep past have privileged tributes and epic narratives intoned by traditional bards, Arabic texts by foreign and indigenous authors, and physical traces of settlements unearthed by archaeologists. When superimposed, Sahelian archaeology, poetry, history, and visual arts at times offer contradictory narratives rather than a unified understanding of events that shaped the region. While epic poetry extols the heroic feats of larger-than-life Mande ancestors, for example, and the earliest written chronicles describe "empires" and "kingdoms," archaeological evidence suggests instead that alternative forms of governance developed there, such as confederations of relatively autonomous, self-ruling communities that lacked a fixed capital but paid tribute to a central authority.
Beginning in the eleventh century, the adoption of Islam by the leadership of major Sahelian states led to the sponsorship of important civic structures in urban settings such as Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne, including many of the region's famed adobe mosques. At the same time, visual traditions shaped by earlier, nonscriptural religions and beliefs continued to flourish and evolve in affiliated rural communities across the Niger River valley of present-day Mali. Among these are the formally inventive figurative representations by Middle Niger, Soninke, Dogon, and Bamana sculptors. Today recognized as landmarks of African art, they represent cultural ideals and prayers for divine intercession by individuals whose life experiences are otherwise unrecorded.
Notable Sahelian events and collective memories have been imparted across generations through the spoken word. Born into their vocation, Mande griots, or jeliw (singular jeli), serve as narrators of oral traditions as well as poets, genealogists, praise singers, diplomats, public spokespersons, and orators.
While Homeric epics have been frozen in time since their transcription twenty-seven centuries ago, their West African corollaries were not recorded until the late nineteenth century, and remain living narratives that continue to absorb topical content. The most celebrated of these recounts the genesis of the Mali empire and follows the exploits of its founder, Sunjata. Extolled as "the lion-thief who takes his inheritance," the hero begins life with paralyzed legs; the son of a Mande district chief and a physically deformed and spiritually powerful woman, he becomes a formidable war leader who vanquishes the blacksmith sorcerer Sumanguru Kanté and his occupying Soso army.
The deeds of such larger-than-life forebears have been mined by Mande jeliw for expressions of deeply held cultural values, and lyrics celebrating Sunjata have been adopted as the Malian national anthem. Jeli performances remain the animating force of any ceremonial or festive occasion, from weddings to child-naming ceremonies, national holidays, and political rallies. Since the 1980s their audiences have expanded globally to include the international concert circuit.
Mud, or banco, is a pervasive Sahelian medium of artistic expression. Combined with sand and water and formed by hand into sun-dried bricks, banco gives shape to structures ranging from humble granaries and intimate shrines to royal residences or grandiose mosques. The inner armature of poles, or toron, that protrude from a building's plastic exterior at once contribute a distinctive aesthetic and constitute scaffolding that allows workers to scale them in order to annually renew the facade. The quintessence of semipermanent construction, buildings made of banco inexorably melt in the annual rains. Resurfacing is not simply a process of literal replacement. Instead, every intervention contributes to a building's evolution as a continually reshaped, living structure.
Among the key extant landmarks in this tradition are fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Timbuktu mosques whose underlying design has been interpreted as anthropomorphic. Despite their longevity, the Sahel's fluid landmarks are a perpetual reflection of the present. In the early twentieth century this legacy of mutable banco structures became the inspiration for a Neo-Sahelian style in which the ancient aesthetic was translated into industrial—and unalterable—reinforced-concrete structures in urban centers from Dakar to Niamey.
Central to the ideology of ancient Ghana, or Wagadu, was its identification with gold production. According to legend, the first king of Wagadu and the founder of Soninke clans was said to be the offspring of a water spirit. A pact for Wagadu's prosperity brokered with a serpent exchanged rainfall, a bountiful harvest, and gold for the annual sacrifice of a maiden.
In reality, Ghana did not have its own sources of gold. Strategically positioned near Bambuk in the Senegal River valley, it controlled access to gold producers there and established alliances with desert-dwelling Berbers or Sanhaja who procured salt. Its rulers taxed the exchange of gold for salt from the south and copper and manufactured imports from the north.
Referred to as a "land of gold" by Arab geographers and as an empire by historical sources, Ghana was likely a gradually consolidated confederation of many small states. Eleventh-century visitors described its capital, Kumbi Saleh, as composed of the rounded mud structures of a central royal residence adjoined by a district of stone mosques that was inhabited by Muslim traders. The country known as Ghana today is geographically unrelated to the ancient empire; as the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence from colonial rule in 1957, it named itself Ghana in honor of the ancient empire.
The population of the ancient states of Ghana and Takrur, west of the Niger River, were predominantly Soninke speakers known as Wangara. They were credited with establishing interior trade routes and urban settlements. At the start of the second millennium, a series of developments contributed to their dispersal, or diaspora.
In the eleventh century, a declining Ghana was likely conquered by Islamic Berbers of the western Sahara known as the Almoravids. During the twelfth century, the opening of new goldfields at Buré, on the frontier of present-day Mali and Guinea, led caravans from North Africa to shift earlier western routes toward the east and south. In the thirteenth century, the marginal western Mauritanian lands were impacted by severe drought.
In response to such cataclysmic change, the Soninke ventured farther south. Their engagement with Bamana and Malinke groups stimulated new trade networks and state formation. The Wagadu epic tradition traces the precipitation of waves of migrations across West Africa back to the villainous slaying of their guardian serpent, which unleashed drought, famine, and loss of gold.
The perilous north–south crossing of the Sahara by camel takes two months and requires intimate knowledge of the landscape and night sky. As "the ship of the desert," the camel has been critical to the success of trans-Saharan travel. Caravans composed of thousands of camels and hundreds of people ferried goods between the Mediterranean and northern Sahara trade centers. Goods sent south included cloth, glassware, armaments, ceramics, metal housewares, paper, and horses bred in North Africa, the latter being the most costly and prestigious. Principal among items carried north was West African gold, which was bartered at its points of origin for other regional commodities such as salt from the Sahara. Scholars estimate that between 800 and 1500, one ton of gold was supplied annually through this axis until it was diverted to shipments along the Atlantic coast.
The Sahel supplied an established market for slaves in North Africa and the Arab lands to the east into the twentieth century. As many as ten million Africans entered that network between 800 and 1900, and half of them traversed the Sahara. In contrast to the transatlantic trade, female captives were a priority for affluent urban households. Because Islamic law required that masters recognize sons born from unions with enslaved women, replacement of those who were emancipated as well as high mortality rates fueled a constant demand. On the Saharan frontier the price of a human life was most often quoted in relation to that of the value of a horse—from ten to thirty persons.
Islam's arrival in the Sahel was peaceful. Its introduction by merchants in the late seventh century fostered cooperation between its followers and adherents of nonscriptural religions born in Africa. Islam's gradual adoption expanded existing spiritual and cultural repertoires and transformed it into a dominant religion of the Sahel. Far from monolithic, its practice has been defined by a diversity of approaches.
The earliest Sahelian sovereigns to embrace Islam customized their observance of the faith to retain the allegiance of their non-Muslim subjects. Their participation in an Islamic world beyond West Africa afforded new coordinates—prayer oriented toward Mecca, a nonseasonal calendar, and the spiritual journey of the hajj. From the fourteenth century, itinerant teachers who followed the expansion of trade routes propagated Islam and its coexistence with nonbelievers.
Mansa Musa of Mali's grandiose 1324 pilgrimage to Mecca via Cairo forged multilateral connections and reverberated globally. Upon his return home he contributed to the development of Timbuktu as a center of Islamic study. This period coincided with the emergence of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam disseminated through orders, or tariqas, emphasizing the inward search for spiritual closeness with God through learning. The earliest among these orders, founded in twelfth-century Iran, was the Qadiriya brotherhood, later adopted by the Kunta family, who promulgated scholarship and commerce in Timbuktu. The Tijaniya, another major Sufi order, originated in North Africa much later, during a time of intense religious revival in the eighteenth century.
Malinke chiefdoms southeast of ancient Ghana united to form a new state under the heroic leader Sunjata in the early thirteenth century. At its height under Mansa Musa, ancient Mali's influence extended from the Atlantic coasts of Senegal and the Gambia to Gao and the forest-savanna of the southern Niger River basin.
Within that territorial expanse lay the city of Jenne-jeno. Settled as early as the third century B.C., its fertile floodplain yielded surpluses of abundant biannual crops. An outer wall demarcated the densely packed, mud-brick abodes of an ethnically diverse citizenry. Organized in professional districts, residents included metalsmiths and potters responsible for complex figurative representations, as well as brickmakers, builders, traders, fishermen, and farmers. There are no signs, however, of central authority in the form of monuments, palaces, or temples.
Unknown sources of stress led to Jenne-jeno's abandonment between the early thirteenth century and 1400. That period coincides with an explosion of figurative representation across the Middle Niger. The few examples that have been documented in controlled excavations were originally either integrated into the foundations of domestic compounds as household shrines or deliberately discarded.
With their embrace of Islam, Mali's leaders took a stance of tolerance toward the plurality of beliefs practiced by their culturally diverse subjects. The edifices in Timbuktu sponsored by Mansa Musa, as gestures of devotion following his pilgrimage to Mecca, were contemporaneous with the practice of non-Islamic indigenous beliefs. Traces of these local practices endure in the fired-clay and cast-metal figurative representations created across the Middle Niger, as well as in examples in wood from the nearby Bandiagara escarpment, or plateau.
The Bandiagara's elevated and impregnable cliff offered refuge to a succession of migrants, including the Soninke, who had left ancient Ghana. Upon their arrival in the fifteenth century, Dogon settlers referred to those who preceded them as tellem, or "we found them." The relative inaccessibility of the Bandiagara's caves allowed them to serve as secure chambers for storing reserves of grain and for ancestral burials. That remoteness and the arid climate contributed to the preservation of some of the earliest textiles from sub-Saharan Africa. The Tellem laid their departed to rest with these as burial offerings, along with attributes of their vocations as hunters and farmers.
Until the twentieth century, understanding of the Sahel's deep history was informed by oral traditions and the written accounts of Islamic authors. Amateur archaeologists who set out to merely confirm those accounts often intervened, with destructive results. Painstaking modern investigations of the Sahel's many-layered settlements have afforded an independent fount of information. These have notably established that urbanism and state formation were already in progress before the development of trans-Saharan trade with Berber North Africa. Signs of pre-Islamic cultural traditions and beliefs survive in the traces of the distinctive burial practices of these Sahelian communities.
Three decades of sustained excavation of the tell, or foundation, of Jenne-jeno, begun by Roderick and Susan Keech McIntosh in 1977, have contributed an especially detailed case study of the development of a major Sahelian urban center from 250 b.c. to a.d. 1400. Analysis of the site suggests that its citizenry participated in a unified economic network and political self-governance. Such evidence has dispelled earlier assumptions that the rise of Sahelian states was due to external stimulation. Instead, the region's culturally diverse settlements fostered highly developed east–west networks of exchange, as evidenced by beads and other exotic items from as far away as East and Southeast Asia deposited at the time of Jenne-jeno's founding.
Until the 1970s traces of Mali's ancient civilizations surfaced as casual finds, such as terracotta statuettes emerging from eroded mounds. International awareness of such sites led to the establishment of a major controlled excavation at Jenne-jeno. It also resulted in extensive unsanctioned digging for commercial gain.
The recovery of the first scientifically documented Middle Niger figural terracottas underscored the rich legacy at stake and prompted the Malian government to begin taking measures to safeguard that patrimony. On September 23, 1993, a commitment to protect the region's major archaeological sites was ratified in the form of a bilateral agreement between Mali and the United States to suppress the illegal traffic in Malian antiquities. The accord is not retroactive and is limited to these two signatories, but it addresses the need to protect antiquities that remain in the ground. A campaign of national public education accompanied the launch of this historic initiative.
In the last decade, Mali's cultural heritage has faced a new existential threat in which its historic landmarks, including Timbuktu's storied libraries and mosques, have been among the targets of iconoclasm by Islamic extremists.
Ancient Mali's territory exceeded that of any other Sahelian state before or since. Until its gradual decline in the latter half of the fifteenth century, its system of law and order incorporated non-Mande Dogon, Senufo, Bozo, Somono, and Fulani subjects. Dogon oral traditions evoke an original homeland in the center of the Mali empire as the point of departure for their own migrations north to the Bandiagara. Dogon settlers were greatly influenced by the Tellem traditions they encountered there. They removed votive offerings from Tellem collective burial sites, or necropoli, and transferred them to their own altars. Given their embrace of such precedents, it is impossible to distinguish between Dogon and Tellem sculptural traditions on a purely formal basis.
The Dogon pantheon includes the celestial creator, Amma, as well as divinities identified with water (Nommo) and earth (Lebe). Dogon sculptural creations have served as altars for prayer, the veneration of ancestors, and expressions of the intense desire for new life. With the mid-twentieth-century conversion of members of Dogon communities to Islam, and with an interest in Dogon sculpture in the world at large, such works have been dispersed internationally.
The city of Gao was a major terminus of trans-Saharan trade that developed in parallel to ancient Ghana. In the 1430s Mali relinquished control of Gao as well as Timbuktu to Songhay. The empire's rise was led by Sii Ali Beeri. An effective military strategist whose forces included cavalry and a fleet of riverboats, he sacked Timbuktu in 1469 and subsequently invaded Jenne following a four-year siege.
While Ali Beeri maintained ties to his people's traditional beliefs, one of his military commanders and the founder of a new dynasty, Askia Muhammad, prioritized relations with the Islamic establishment. Under that patronage, Timbuktu flourished as a major intellectual center that attracted scholars from the Sahara and North Africa.
By 1591 Songhay, weakened by internal divisions, was invaded by troops deployed by the Moroccan sultan Ahmad al-Mansur. Soldiers equipped with firearms defeated the Songhay forces at the battle of Tondibi and proceeded to loot and occupy Gao, Timbuktu, and Jenne. The Songhay army continued a campaign of resistance but never recovered. In defiance of their Moroccan overlords, seventeenth-century Timbuktu authors of now-classic texts drew upon oral traditions to chronicle Songhay's past triumphs.
Scattered among the Sahel's agricultural settlements were communities of Fulani pastoralists, which included Muslim scholars and clerics. In the eighteenth century, some Fulani clerics began to question the longstanding tradition of Muslim clerics advising regional leaders without challenging the non-Islamic identities of their subjects. This position led to reform movements and revolutions that used the formula of militant jihad. Most famous among these was the Sokoto caliphate, founded by Uthman dan Fodio. Farther west, such movements culminated in the creation of Islamic states in Futa Jalon (Guinea), Futa Toro (Senegal), and Masina (Mali).
Born in Futa Toro in about 1798 and educated in Futa Jalon, the charismatic El Hajj 'Umar Tal was unique among Fulani reformers for having made the arduous pilgrimage to Mecca. While there, he was initiated into the relatively new North African Sufi Tijaniya order, which challenged the West African Qadiriya establishment. After spending several years teaching, writing, and attracting disciples, 'Umar Tal decided to challenge and destroy the Mande and, especially, Bamana states then dominant in the western Sahel. The zeal of his followers and the superiority of his weaponry, obtained from European sources along the coast, made him successful against his opponents.
El Hajj 'Umar Tal's jihad against "paganism," launched in 1852, blazed a trail across the Sahel from west to east. Following his seizure of Kaarta's capital of Nioro he ordered its Bamana residents to bring their boliw shrines to the public square to be destroyed. With the 1861 conquest of Bamana Segu, the "fetishes" of gold and wood used in annual rites recalling the state's founding became prime evidence of idolatry. Amadu III of the Masina caliphate opposed the conquest as an infringement on his sovereignty and provided asylum to Segu's deposed leader, Bina Ali. In response to evidence of an alliance of Masina and the Kunta of Timbuktu with his flagrantly "pagan" opponent, 'Umar Tal condemned their complicity and falling away from Islamic conduct to justify his unprecedented retaliation. His short-lived victory over Hamdullahi lasted only a year, when a massive revolt by the defeated Masinanké, aided by Kunta forces, overwhelmed the Umarians and led to 'Umar Tal's demise in the Bandiagara cliffs.
'Umar Tal's eldest son and anointed successor, Ahmadu Sheku, inherited a fractious house. After two decades of struggle to rule over areas conquered by Umarian forces, he was forced to retreat as the French moved into the Middle Niger, where they created their colony of French Sudan (present-day Mali). During their advance, they secured the cooperation of one of Ahmadu's younger brothers, Agibu. In Senegal, the place of his birth, 'Umar Tal has come to be viewed as a hero of the resistance against French colonialism. For those who identify with the sovereign states he conquered to the east in Mali, his legacy is that of an invading crusader.
Known for his political acumen and ruthlessness, Biton Kulibali, the "Man-Killing Hunter," established the Bamana state of Segu in 1712. Biton's power base of tonjonw were members of a voluntary youth association that became a permanent martial force. They waged campaigns seasonally to gain captives of war, whom they incorporated into local regiments or sold to the Saharan and Atlantic markets for arms, munitions, horses, and luxury goods. Around 1750, Ngolo Diarra, a former captive turned leading member of the army, founded a new dynasty that endured for over a century. His grandson, Da Monzon, is estimated to have placed as many as 100,000 soldiers on the field to gain control of the Middle Niger region from Bamako to Masina.
At the Segu court traditional priests officiated over rites concerned with farming, hunting, and war, practices that made the state the chief target of 'Umar Tal, who characterized it as a "citadel of paganism." Despite the alliance between its leader, Bina Ali, and Amadu III of the Masina Caliphate of Hamdullahi, formed to avert conquest by jihad, both states were ultimately invaded by the Umarian army. 'Umar Tal smashed Segu's "idols," and its capital transitioned from a stronghold of traditional belief to that of the Umarian Islamic regime. Only thirty years later, Umarian colonization was replaced by that of the French. Across Segu's former territories, however, Bamana cultural traditions were not extinguished but have continued to be practiced and accrue new meanings into the present.
Equestrian, 19th–20th century. Bamana peoples. Mali, Ouassabo, Bougouni District. Wood, iron, 51 inches. Private collection.