Research

Transcultural Connectivity and Art History. Liminal Spaces along the Swahili Coast

Vera-Simone Schulz

The Great Mosque of Kilwa, 14th-15th cent., Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania

The Swahili Coast has long been understood as a place of encounter between people, artifacts, and materials from Sub-Saharan Africa and various other regions of the world, particularly in relation to trans-oceanic trade. Persian ceramics, Chinese porcelain bowls and other imported items were incorporated into architectural structures, constituting intriguing and multi-layered cases of intersections between architecture, objects, and ornamentation in a transcultural perspective.

Though analyzed thoroughly by archaeologists and anthropologists, the Swahili coast of the premodern period has been and continues to be at the very margin of art historical scholarship. Yet, now that the field of art history is opening up to a global horizon, the Swahili coast is a case in point regarding the mobility of people and artifacts, transcultural dynamics and processes of artistic transfer between the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Bay of Bengal, and beyond.

The project focuses on premodern entanglements between the local and the global, intersections between long-distance and short-distance relationships, and Islamic art and architecture along the Swahili coast. In close dialogue with archaeology and anthropology, the aim is thereby both to sound out how art history can contribute to studies on the built environment in coastal East Africa and how analyses of the liminal spaces along the Swahili coast can contribute to current debates in (transcultural) art history. It is part of a larger project on Islamic art and architecture at the margins of and outside of the Islamic world (with other pre-modern Islamic sites in Sub-Saharan Africa and interrelations between Italy and the Islamic world serving for comparisons and long-distance connectivity studies).

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