Carved Doors as Historical Documents in Zanzibar, Oman, and Beyond by Janet M. Purdy PhD

A doorway or opening as a definitive physical space often represents not only a delineation, but also a distinct point of transformation or transition in movement: a threshold, or even a place of danger. Artists of the Arabian Peninsula and Indian Ocean worlds have long applied inscriptions, decorative elements, texts, patterns, and other visual markers to these crossover points as a way to manipulate space and to harness protective powers. In the diversely populated entrepôt of nineteenth-century Zanzibar, for example, patrons commissioned massive, elaborately carved wooden doors for physical and spiritual protection of entrances on buildings of all types. On the Swahili coast of eastern Africa, these site-specific designs also displayed wealth and proximity to power, promoted visual connections to foreign cultures (real or imagined), and manipulated discursive communications for their audience—both internal and external—as part of the translations and negotiations of the complex global exchange systems at play.

While much is revealed through a detailed visual examination of the corpus of doors as iconic objects of art, this talk focuses on the ways carved doors function as primary historical documents. Insights drawn from extensive comparative visual analysis that situates Zanzibar doors within a broader range of examples from Oman, the Swahili coast, Gujarat, and more, reveal regional affinities and multi-vocal expressions as reflections of individual histories and cultural exchange. A series of case studies considers the circulation of doors, patrons, artists, and the transmission of carving techniques and designs. Individual examples highlight the myriad ways meanings and messages are carried across oceans and cultures. They allow us to draw unique historical details out from the wider complexities of forms and relationships built across diverse populations over centuries.

Janet’s lecture is now available to view on our YouTube channel.