Islam and Islamic Arts in Africa

by Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Abdul Al-Hinawy in his family's stone mansion on the waterfront of Old Town, Mombasa. Photographed with his permission by S. Prita Meier, Mombasa, Kenya, 2013.

Despite rich literature concerning Swahili histories and cultures (Spear 2000), surprisingly few scholars have studied Swahili arts. Exceptions are Kelly Askew’s (2002) evocative writing about taarab music that blends coastal and island-east-African styles with Egyptian, Arabian, and related idioms, and Prita Meier’s investigation of “display logics” of “an Afro-Indian Ocean mercantile aesthetic” (2009: 9). With locally defined sophistication, “interior design programs of people’s homes” often “emphasized a style of transcultural fusion” (ibid, 10). In some late-19th-century up-scale dwellings, for example, a densely decorative “skin” composed of ceramic and metal trade-ware plates covered one or more reception-room walls as ostentatious declarations of wealth that, in all likelihood, further protected and promoted residents with subtle talismanic power through the precepts of mystical Islam. Present-day opulent homes reflect this same mode celebrating a family’s heritage of participation in far-flung networks of commerce and cultural exchange (ibid.). In the reception room seen here, photographs of significant persons grace a reception room fitted out with two kiti cha enzi chairs and a remarkable 19th-century clock among other references to family glories.