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Graduate Spring 2018: Janet Purdy

Beyond the Façade: The Messages Behind Carved Swahili Doors

Department of Art History

Beyond the Façade: The Messages Behind Carved Swahili Doors

Flourishing trade and exchange systems from Mogadishu to Mozambique have contributed to an intermixture of cultural development along the East African coast for a millennium. The effect of centuries of interactions between the Indian Ocean Rim and the African interior resulted in the formation of Swahili society, a complex fusion of people whose visual culture has received little scholarly attention. The ornamental style that proliferates Swahili art and architecture is recognized as a composite blend and visual representation of symbols from these diverse inputs and influences on the culture. My project examines the relationship between material objects and the formation of Swahili culture and identity. I focus specifically on massive, carved wooden doors commissioned by Swahili notables, and the role that ornament and definition of architectural space played in the lived experience of nineteenth century Zanzibar in Tanzania. I submit that Zanzibar elites aimed to promote connections to foreign cultures, to evoke memory and values, and to control discursive communications for a contemporary audience—both internal and external—as part of the translations and negotiations of the complex exchange systems at play during that time. I argue that a systematic comparative analysis and interpretation of design elements, iconography, and coded visual messages will unlock a better understanding of Swahili culture and syncretism.