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March 6, 2008

A Saint in the City Exhibit Celebrates the Sufi Arts

A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal is the first major U.S. exhibition of the arts and culture of a dynamic and influential Muslim spiritual brotherhood, known as Mouridism, in the West African country of Senegal. The exhibition explores the range of Mouride arts—large popular murals, intricate glass paintings, calligraphic healing devices, posters for social activism, colorful textiles, and paintings by internationally known contemporary artists. Mouridism is based on the teachings of the Senegalese Muslim Saint Sheikh Amadou Bamba (1853–1927). The exhibition is on view at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture from March 9 through May 31.

Artist Mor Gueye's Sheikh Amadou Bamba Praying on the Waters, 1998
Photo courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA

The exhibition is part of a three-day symposium,Tolerance, Democracy, and Sufis in Senegal, organized by three Columbia centers and institutes: The Institute of African Studies, along with the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life and the Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration, and Religion.

“Columbia University is delighted to collaborate with the Schomburg Center in presenting A Saint in the City, a rare and exceptional Sufi arts exhibition from Senegal,” said Mamadou Diouf, professor of African history and director of the Institute for African Studies at Columbia. “It is a powerful visual and textual narrative of both the trials, tribulations, dangers, miracles and religious marvels of Sheikh Amadou Bamba and of his brotherhood. The symposium we have organized and the exhibition on Sufism in Senegal is just one of many forthcoming efforts to partner with our neighbors.”

Sheikh Amadou Bamba was a Sufi, or Muslim mystic, who resisted French colonial oppression through pacifism, and is today the spiritual leader of four million Mourides in Senegal and thousands more around the globe. Although not very well known in the United States, Mouridism, one of four Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal, is a pervasive and positive influence in contemporary Senegalese culture, and is credited for helping to create stability in the country. Sufism is considered to be the mystical core of Islam, and the abundant images of Bamba throughout the country convey the Saint’s blessings on his followers.

Elimane Fall's Le Travail (Work), 1999
Photo courtesy of the
Fowler Museum at UCLA

A Saint in the City offers New Yorkers an opportunity to discover, for the first time, an indigenous African Muslim religious tradition that has produced rich, vibrant art forms in Senegal,” said Howard Dodson, chief of the Schomburg Center. “Vernacular and professional artists of Senegal have made the religion and its founder, Sheikh Amadou Bamba, subjects of new artistic expressions that make this exhibition truly unique. The Schomburg Center is pleased to host this path-breaking effort.”

The presentation at the Schomburg Center will include a cameo section offering a glimpse of the contemporary Senegalese Mouride community in New York City, as well as insights on the presence of African Muslims in the United States dating back to the transatlantic slave trade between the 1600s and 1860.

“There [is] no venue more important for this exhibition than the Schomburg Center, and its sponsorship by Columbia University is so significant, given the proximity of both institutions to the substantial Senegalese populations of Harlem,” said exhibition co-curators Allen F. Roberts and Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts.

A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal was organized and produced by the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and curated by Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts in collaboration with Senegalese community leaders and artists in both Dakar and Los Angeles. It was made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support was provided by the James S. Coleman African Studies Center at UCLA.

 – Story by Victoria Benitez