I am an Africanist art and architectural historian who looks at visual culture and built space through the lenses of circulation, empire and globalization. My scholarship centers on the spatial and aesthetic politics of coastal cities, ports, and border territories. My primary research site is the Swahili coast of eastern Africa. I have conducted fieldwork and archival research over the last sixteen years in Kenya and Tanzania, including in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Mombasa, Lamu, and Zanzibar.
My book, Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere (Indiana University Press, 2016), explores the contested meanings of the built landscape of still-thriving eastern African ports, including Mombasa, Lamu, and Zanzibar. The book frames these places as porous sites, whose architectures are constituted by itinerant practices of belonging that fundamentally challenge the racialized logic of colonialism and the nation-state. I also consider architectural ornament and interior space and the intersection between oceanic aesthetics and the material and symbolic economies of slavery and subjugation.
I am committed to the formulation of an Indian Ocean art history—with Africa at its center. My work on Swahili coast urban history and architecture is complemented by research on other media, which seeks to address fundamental questions about the agency of people and things in the African Indian Ocean world. I have written on a range of related topics, including early modern funerary monuments as landscapes of devotion and the transhistorical significance of Chinese ceramics and other luxury imports for Swahili self-making. I always emphasize the materiality of “the oceanic” in order to move beyond generalizations about global flows and fluid imaginaries. The key question that animates my study of mobile objects is: what happens to things once they stop being mobile and come to rest on specific bodies and in specific buildings?
Another component of my work concerns the question of temporality and the related topics of modernity and modernism. In articles and book chapters I have analyzed the tensions and contradictions inherent in the embrace of the multiple modernities model for the study of modern art in Africa, the racialist frameworks of Africanist art studies, and the geopolitics of major contemporary African art exhibitions.
I have also organized exhibitions, such as the 2012 African Art and the Shape of Time at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, which I co-curated with Prof. Raymond Silverman and World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts across the Indian Ocean, co-curated with Dr. Allyson Purpura. The latter exhibition opened at the Krannert Art Museum in 2017 and traveled to the Fowler Museum at UCLA and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in 2018. The exhibition, which was the recipient of two National Endowment of the Humanities grants, brought together over 150 objects from public and private collections in Kenya, Oman, The Netherlands, Germany, and the United States, many of which have never been exhibited or written about before. The accompanying 400-page volume, which I co-edited with Dr. Purpura, consists of twenty-one essays by an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars.
My current research focuses on the material technologies and image cultures of travel and transportation. I am completing a manuscript on Swahili coast photography, provisionally titled Sea of Things: A History of Photography from the Swahili Coast (under contract with Princeton University Press), which frames the photograph not as a static image, but as a material artifact constituted by mobility and explores the everyday uses of photographs. Relatedly, I have begun to research the pre-colonial era and the cultural connections between the Swahili coast and mainland Africa in a project tentatively titled Ivory in Motion: Shared Object Cultures in Central Africa and the Swahili Coast, which will reveal the ways the Swahili coast is part of a larger African history of ivory arts. I am also part of an interdisciplinary research project called Highway Africa, which focuses on Africa’s postcolonial engineering megaprojects. Our group’s aim is to reorient the study of infrastructure from the geopolitical to the cultural by asking questions about the kinds of modes of being and seeing such material interventions embody.
I have held fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA), The Clark Art Institute, The Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, and Johns Hopkins University. Before joining NYU I taught at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Wayne State University.