The African Indian Ocean as Art Historical Method

Prita Meier, Art History and Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

A focus on matter and materiality, as opposed to the discursive and imaginary, foregrounds how objects are used to make claims on both people and territories.

In Fall 2020, Prita Meier taught the undergraduate seminar, "Africa in the Indian Ocean World" at New York University. The framework of the Indian Ocean, and a particular focus on the Swahili coast and the lives and experiences of Africans in the region, has provided Meier with a platform to teach and think differently. Rather than an extension of "global art history" – which for Meier is the art history of the past, only masquerading in the colors of world objects – thinking through Indian Ocean exposes the inherent biases of even the broadest categories such as Africa, Europe, the West, the local, and the global. She posits those categories as signposts of a specific historical moment during which discrete spaces and objects became operative for the colonial ownership of people and the modern management of power. By studying the macrocosm of the Indian Ocean through the matter and materiality of individual objects, Meier’s students came to understand what happens when mobile objects in a network come to rest. Together with her co-curator Allyson Purpura at the Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Meier explored that framework in a recent traveling exhibition, World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean (see also their Journal18 article on the subject). Applying the Indian Ocean framework to her course allowed Meier to focus on connections that spanned continents and to foreground the complex relationalities of racialization, ethnicity, and nationalism.

Prita Meier is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. Her work centers on art and architecture of Africa, and on port cities and visual cultures of the Indian Ocean world.

Image credit: Interior of an eighteenth-century merchant mansion in Lamu Town, present-day Kenya, August 1884, photograph. Papers of Sir John Kirk, National Library of Scotland.