Monday, January 28, 2008

a saint in the city: sufi arts of urban senegal

Better late than never: A Saint in the City: Sufi arts of urban Senegal is a rather rich and informative article about a book about an art exhibit of works inspired by the influential Senegalese Muslim holy man, Amadou Bamba.

"A Saint in the City" presents the visual culture of a dynamic religious movement known as the Mouride Way that is inspired by a Senegalese Sufi pacifist, poet, and saint named Amadou Bamba (1853-1927). Mourides are galvanizing contemporary Senegal and its ever-expanding diaspora through their hard work and steadfast devotion. The exhibition presents a striking range of Mouride arts, from large popular murals, intricate glass paintings, and calligraphic healing devices to posters for social activism, colorful textiles, and paintings by internationally known contemporary artists. A devotional sanctum filled with sacred imagery and an urban market scene capturing the bustle of contemporary Dakar are re-created to suggest how Mourides live and work under the beneficent eye of the Saint (Fig. 1). Artist profiles and videos feature the voices and works of nine artists who have shaped our understanding of this deeply spiritual movement. Signal works from Islamic cultures elsewhere in Africa reveal a similarity to Mouride arts while underscoring particularities of Mouride creativity.


Mouridism is one of the most distinctive aspects of contemporary Senegalese social life. Indeed, it would be impossible to understand how the republic's "brisk and vigorous democracy" (NPR 1998) makes it "a beacon of hope ... in a troubled region" (Wallis & Caswell 2000) without fully appreciating this, the republic's most economically and politically influential Islamic movement. Mouridism links all secular and sacred activities. Senegal also has "a long tradition of amicable and tolerant co-existence between the Muslim majority and the Christian ... and other religious minorities" (CIR 2000; see also Ndiaye 2002:606); and political scientist Leonardo Villalon (1995) holds that the country's striking stability can be attributed to the unusual balance of power between the Senegalese government and the Mourides and other religious orders (also see Biaya 1998). In the year 2000, Senegal peacefully elected the long-time opposition candidate Abdoulaye Wade their president. Mr. Wade is a devoted Mouride, and since his election he has played a prominent role in negotiations for African peace and economic recovery (Onishi 2002).


"Islam in Africa is nearly as old as the faith itself" Rene Bravmann reminds us (2000:489), and a mere century after the Prophet Muhammed's death in 632 C.E., Islam was being practiced in trading towns of the Sahel. Islam reached what is now Senegal by the tenth century (Hiskett 1994:107) and soon became important to local politics (Levtzion 2000:78). In the eighteenth century, Sufism brought its international influences, spiritual technologies, and paths to divinity to Senegal. The growth of Islam in Africa has been phenomenal ever since, and now, at the turn of the twenty-first century, one of every eight Muslims hails from sub-Saharan Africa, while one of every three sub-Saharan Africans is Muslim (Kane & Triaud 1998:7, 12).

Ocean trade has connected Senegal to other parts of the world for many centuries. Lying at the westernmost point of the African continent, Senegal is the first sub-Saharan country encountered as one sails southward "around the bend" from Europe. It has long been a threshold between the Americas and Africa as well, and the fortifications and infamous "Slave House" of Goree Island lying just off the coast of Dakar provide poignant reminders of the transatlantic slave trade. Senegalese Muslims were among the first slaves brought to the Americas. "Literate, urban, and in some cases well traveled," they "realized incomparable feats in the countries of their enslavement" (S. Diouf 1998:1). (12) To underscore the point, Manning Marable writes that "faith and spirituality have always been powerful forces in the histories of people of African descent. Central to that history is Islam" (quoted in S. Diouf 1998, back cover).

If the above intrigues you, check out the entire article which goes into more detail about the concept of baraka, the role of Sufism in Senegal, the branch of Mouridism known as Baye Fall, and other subjects.

Shaykh Amadou Bamba
catching up

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