I am an Africanist art and architectural historian who looks at visual culture and built space through the lenses of circulation, empire and globalization. I am committed to the formulation of an Indian Ocean art history—with Africa at its center. My scholarship focuses on maritime regions and port cities because they invite us to question received ideas about cultural boundaries and the nature of identity. My primary research site is the Swahili coast of eastern Africa and I have conducted fieldwork and archival research over the past twenty 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 coral-stone built landscapes during the age of empire. The book frames ports 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 the Afro-Asian inflections of local architectural ornament and how the celebrated aesthetics of the region are shaped by histories and experiences of Indian Ocean slavery.
My work on urban history and architecture is complemented by research on other media that 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 Asian ceramics and other luxury imports in the context of African maritime mercantilism.
I also consider contemporary and modern African art in my teaching and scholarship. Examining the relationship between visual practice, colonialism and modernity in Africa is especially important to me—to this end my recent work has focused on photography as transmedia in Africa. My next book, The Surface of Things: A History of Photography from the Swahili Coast (Princeton University Press, summer 2024) frames the photograph not as a static image, but as a material artifact constituted by oceanic mobility. I have also published on the formation of Africanist art history as a discipline and the specter of nationalism and authenticity in the study of African art.
My other current research considers materials and image cultures of travel and transportation. Ivory in Motion: Shared Object Cultures Across Africa and the Indian Ocean World focuses on the pre-colonial era and explores matter and meaning across continental divides. I am also part of an interdisciplinary collaborative called Highway Africa, which looks at Africa’s postcolonial engineering megaprojects. The project analyzes how politics of indigeneity, infrastructure, and Islam intersect in coastal Kenya.
I am particularly inspired by working with emerging scholars who focus on marginalized topics or sites. I am the co-PI of the Getty-funded Indian Ocean Exchanges program (directed by Dr. Nancy Um, Getty Research Institute), which amplifies expertise from the Global South. We are an international cohort of students, professors, and heritage experts who have been traveling in the Indian Ocean world together to develop new research projects and networks. At the center of the program is a deep commitment to advancing scholarship that is about collaboration and mentorship.
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 had never been exhibited or written about before.
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.