By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Swahili peoples, Kenya, Swahili door carving. Photo by Allen F. Roberts.

African art may reflect historical encounters and assimilations not only through obvious figurative depictions of foreigners, but through far more subtle decorative patterns or stylistic features. Swahili art and architecture of the eastern African coast and the island of Zanzibar, for example, testify to the confluence of many cultural strains, including Indian, Arabic, and African, which are synthesized and expressed in an essentially indigenous Swahili idiom. Massive yet delicately carved wooden doors with ornate doorframes and lintels bear witness to a rich architectural tradition that flourished for centuries from Somalia to Mozambique. The doors once served as symbols of affluence and power for the homes of wealthy slave traders and merchants who plied the Indian Ocean trade caravans. The multicultural history of the Swahili coast with its restless maritime culture is recorded through combinations of curvilinear floral and foliate patterns, as well as enormous iron bosses.