Artistic Influences. While most West African cultures of the period 500-1590 had distinct artistic expressions, interregional and trans-Saharan artistic influences were already apparent. Long-distance trade and military expeditions by the North African Almoravids spread not only Islam but Muslim art and culture, which came together with sub-Saharan intellectual and cultural influences at major commercial centers such as Djenné-Jeno and Timbuktu. Some musical forms and instruments of the Sahel and the eastern Sahara bear striking resemblances to those of Islamized cultures in the Western Sudan, part of the band of savanna or grassland stretching across the continent south of the Sahara. Trade, migration, the expansion of kingdoms, and the conquest of neighboring or peripheral peoples within West Africa also brought the commingling of cultural and artistic media, styles, and forms. For example, the complex mythology of the Yoruba-speaking peoples of Nigeria—who had migrated to Ile-Ife in southern Nigeria over several centuries and subsequently dispersed within the western region—is an amalgamation of both indigenous and imported cultural ideas and iconographies. Other cultural interactions account for the broad distribution of iron-smelting furnaces, the cire-perdue (lost-wax) method of brass sculpting, and heddle looms in West Africa.
Muslim Artistic Culture. Muslim influences may be found in the verbal and vocal styles, language, and iconography of many West African peoples. The Sahara and Sahel often acted as a bridge between the Nile Valley and Arabic cultures of eastern Africa and the Atlantic coastal and Sudanic cultures of western Africa. At its zenith, around 800-1100, Djenné-Jeno in Mali drew artists and intellectuals from as far away as the eastern Nile Valley and the Arabian Peninsula. The dynamic interactions of such diverse cultures greatly influenced court and common art in the region, and the resulting artworks drew attention to its greatness from the outside world.
Arabic Language. Arabic language and literature had a profound impact on West African artistic development. As trade and Islam spread, so did the Arabic language in both its oral and written forms. Arab traders and Islamized Africans brought the Quran (Koran), written in Arabic script. Djenné-Jeno became the site of intellectual exchange, religious study, and cultural evolution. Within the walls of its beautiful mosques, artists
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and scholars gathered to exchange ideas and to learn from the great minds of their era. Like other contemporary international cities of artistic and intellectual engagement, Djenné-Jeno attracted visitors from around the world.
J. O. Hunwick, Timbuktu & the Songhay Empire: Al-Sa’di’s Tarikh alsudan Down to 1613 and Other Contemporary Documents (Leiden: Brill, 1999).
Timothy A. Insoll, “The Road to Timbuktu: Trade & Empire,” Archaeology, 53, no. 6 (2000): 48-52.