Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas


A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal
  • A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal
  • 17-Feb-2007 - 20-May-2007
  • Kress Gallery, South Balcony, and North Balcony, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas

A Saint in the City presents the art and culture of Islamic West Africa through a dynamic popular religious movement in Senegal known as the Mouride Way, and in doing so encourages dialogue about Islam's commonalities as well as its multiple forms throughout the world. Inspired by the teachings of Sheikh Amadou Bamba, a Sufi pacifist, poet, and saint who lived from 1853 to 1927, Mourides have galvanized contemporary Senegal and its Diaspora through hard work and peaceful, steadfast devotion. The vibrant visual arts of Mourides provide a unique opportunity to examine the origins, impact, and varying perceptions of Islam and Sufism, Islam's mystical core.

On the crowded streets of Senegal's capital, Dakar, the image of one man can be found nearly everywhere: on the sides of vehicles, gracing the walls of businesses and homes, sanctifying places of prayer, and overlooking the toil of workers. He is saint, poet, and mystic Sheikh Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), the spiritual leader of four million Muslims in Senegal and thousands more around the globe.

A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal - on view at the Spencer Museum of Art from Feb. 17 through May 20 - is the first major U.S. exhibition dedicated to Senegal, and the first to introduce audiences to the striking range of 20th-century Mouride arts. These include numerous portraits of Bamba in many media, large-scale popular murals and signs, intricate glass paintings, healing verses inscribed in stunning calligraphic styles, colorful textiles, and paintings by internationally recognized contemporary artists.

Bamba was a Sufi, or Muslim mystic, who resisted French colonial oppression through pacifism. An influential Senegalese Sufi movement called the Mouride Way is grounded in his teachings about the dignity and sanctity of work. Mouridism is one of four Sufi movements in Senegal, and is one of the most distinctive aspects of contemporary Senegalese social life. Sufism is thought of as the mystical core of Islam, and the abundant images of Bamba convey the Saint's blessings to his followers.

Though little known in the United States, Mouridism is a pervasive, positive influence in Senegal that contributes to the country's striking stability. The dynamic works of art in A Saint in the City, coupled with insights into Mouridism from the artists - whose words are written on the walls and heard on videos playing throughout the galleries - attest to the vibrancy of this artistic movement in Senegal and the devotion of those who create and appreciate these works.

The exhibition includes images of lively murals by graffitist Papisto, a leading figure in the late 1980's youth movement known as Set-Setal. Inspired by a song about dignity, propriety, and cleanliness of the soul by famed Senegalese world musician Youssou N'Dour, thousands of youths took to the streets to protest lack of jobs. This dramatic demonstration was not a riot, but instead an effort to beautify public spaces by collecting trash and painting walls with icons of popular culture and Sufi saints. Street names were changed, colonial monuments replaced, and soon Dakar was pulsating with wall murals like those on display.

A Saint in the City also traces the heritage of Islam in Africa, which dates to the eighth century CE, a mere 100 years after the death of Muhammad. Glass paintings by Mouride artists depict the shared stories of Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, and the sacrifice of Abraham, while objects such as talismans, articles of dress and adornment, and shrine pieces show the harmonious ways that Islamic precepts are interwoven with local forms and customs elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.

Visitors also can explore depictions of the life and words of Bamba, his descendants, and his followers. Though only a single photograph of the Saint exists (taken in 1913 while he was under house arrest by colonial authorities), it has proved the catalyst for a remarkable proliferation of portraiture and other imagery in Senegal over the past 20 years.

For instance, one wall displays images of the Saint in every imaginable medium - lithographs, posters, silk-screened banners, plaster plaques, photocopies, sand paintings, and even an inked image on cuttlefish bone. There is also small room recreating the devotional sanctum of a holy man whose home in Dakar is laden with sacred imagery.

A Saint in the City also includes a gallery that recreates a typical Senegalese urban street scene, brimming with signs and stands and featuring a pair of seven-foot-tall doors painted with Bamba's image that were donated to the exhibition by a restaurant in Dakar. The mystical potency for Sufis of letters, words, and writings is examined via objects such as prayer boards, papers, and clothing, while another area is devoted to the striking patchwork garments worn by some Mourides.

The exhibition also showcases the works of internationally-exhibited contemporary artists who have been inspired by Mouride precepts. Moussa Tine's assemblages evoke solidarity and the uplifting joys of faith. Chalys Leye's deep-brown canvases are inscribed with codes and mystical devices evocative of the healing practices of Mouride mystics. Viyé Diba's canvases in the earthtones of arid Africa and his sculpture "Musical Materiality" elegantly suggest the weight of responsibility.

The outstanding musical contributions of Mourides infuse the galleries with sound, including songs by Senegalese musicians Youssou N'Dour and Cheikh Lo; "zikrs" (songs of remembrance); women's devotional singing based on lyrics by well-known Mouride female vocalist Fatou Guewel; and Orchestre Baobab.

A Saint in the City celebrates the power of images in the everyday lives of Senegalese people, and demonstrates how these images are reshaping urban environments to express the vitality of contemporary African life. The Mouride arts on view invite visitors to explore one of the many faces of Islam through a culture of peace, hard work, and steadfast devotion.