The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World

Despite the lack of coverage linking two regions, the visual ties between these cultures are quite strong.

The online exhibition, The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World, put on by the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture provides an overview of the transit of East Africans into Diaspora communities within the Indian Ocean world, and their various settlements among Arabic, Indian, Persian and Asian communities. The exhibition draws from several collections within the Library’s holdings and from outside sources. It includes an array of medias, photography, illuminated manuscripts, drawings, prints, and watercolors. Omar H. Ali, Associate Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies, at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, was the consulting scholar and essayist.

Ali’s essays provide ample quantitative research into the movement of peoples due to the slave trade. His focus is on the historical transplantation of East Africans, and he documents their social statuses and the lives they led within their new Diaspora communities. Ali also highlights the lives and deeds of several prominent transplanted Africans, as well as touches on the modern day formations and realities of the Diaspora people. While Ali makes only passing references to the visual cultures of the Diaspora people, he does elaborate on several musical and performance contributions, such as the ‘tanburah’, a ritual performance “used for curing illnesses caused by spirit possession (‘zar’), for mourning the dead, or for celebrating weddings” that incorporates both music and dance.

Regrettably, most of the digitized drawings and photographs in the exhibition are pulled from European sources, which does not give the viewer a substantial picture of how Arabic, Indian, Persian and Asian populations’ visual culture incorporated and represented these diasporic populations. For this, you have to look to the pages taken from the illuminated manuscripts, within the NYPL’s collection there are the ‘Shâhnâmah’ and the ‘Siyar-i Nebi’, or to a selection of the color photographs for a contemporary view.

Despite the lack of coverage linking the visual cultures of East Africa and the regions surrounding the Indian Ocean, and the Diaspora communities therein, the visual ties between these cultures are quite strong. Architectural connections can be drawn between the images provided of the Sidi Said Mosque, built by the Ethiopian, Sidi Said in 1570-71 in Gujarat and the numerous rock-hewn churches in Tigre, Ethiopia, or perhaps better still the intricate lattice work in the arches of the Mosque and that within the metal and wooden hand and processional crosses of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Protective amulets in Ethiopian, Jewish and Islamic societies are a visually performative means of linking faith and visual culture. Magic scrolls from Ethiopian are a commonly employed protective amulet. These scrolls are written on vellum or paper, and often hung around the neck in leather cases. They are inscribed with protective prayers, powerful visual symbols, and spells that shield and aid the wearer from harm. (See Jacques Mercier’s Ethiopian Magic Scrolls for further reading.) In the Jewish tradition, ‘Tefillin’, scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah stored in black leather boxes, are worn around the arms and forehead in order to physically remind Jews of their faith and to spiritually connect them to God’s words. And in the Islamic tradition miniature books or cases with verses of the Koran set within, often served as talismans, providing Divine protection in battle and in everyday life. (See also Heather Coffey’s ‘Between Amulet and Devotion: Islamic Miniature Books in the Lilly Library’.) Like ‘Tefillin’, these amulets, or ‘bazubands’, could be worn on the arm or hung around the neck, and in the Ottoman tradition even affixed to battle standards.

Contemporary visual parallels can be found in the colorful decorations on local public transportation vehicles. The above exhibition image titled, “A Sidi Family in Gujarat”, shows a family on a ‘chhakda’, or auto-rickshaw most similar to a ‘bajaji’ in Tanzania. The colorful designs on the chhakda match the spirit of the ‘matatu’ buses in Kenya and the ‘twegerane’ minibuses in Rwanda.

The resettlement of diasporic artisan communities throughout the Indian Ocean is one of the binding forces in the region’s linked visual cultures. Though further research is needed on this subject, Mark Horton (in his article ‘Craftspeople, Communities, and Commodities: Medieval Exchanges between Northwestern India and East Africa’), archaeologist at the University of Bristol, England provides one example of archaeological evidence for these relocated communities, “an African community living at Sharma on the southern Arabian coast around l000 AD, [is] evidenced by substantial proportions of African pottery. […] Around 30 percent of the pottery is of African origin, quantities that cannot be explained through a trade in ceramic containers (most of the pottery is cooking pots) but must be an ethnic indicator of a resident African community.”

Overall this online exhibition provides a good historical entry point for familiarizing oneself with the historical trade, travel, and cultural intersections of the Indian Ocean world. But to truly appreciate the artists and art works of the region that depict these intersections, you must be able to see the art in person — the next step I hope for the Schomburg Center.

Further Reading