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Prita Meier is an Africanist art and architectural historian at New York University. Her primary research site is the Swahili coast of eastern Africa and her scholarship focuses on the spatial politics and aesthetics of ports cities and border territories. She is the author of Swahili Port Cities: Architecture of Elsewhere. Her current research focuses on the material technologies and image cultures of travel and transportation in the western Indian Ocean.

Below the Waterline: Dhows and the Politics of Heritage in the African Indian Ocean

Areas of Interest

Selected Publications

The Swahili coast of Eastern Africa has long been celebrated for its ancient cultures of seafaring and oceanic mobility. Dhows, the iconic ships of western Indian Ocean, are part of the mobile architectures of the region, creating shared ways of being across great distances. Many nation states and cultural institutions in the region now claim the dhow as their material heritage. But the dhow is also a space and place of violence because it is intimately connected to histories of slavery and resource extraction. Dhows extent human suffering into the sea. In fact, much that has been left unsaid or that has been erased from public memory is what has been hidden from view in the hull of the dhow. This paper explores this space below the waterline, ultimately arguing that we must temper celebratory narratives of marine technologies and transoceanic exchange.

Art and architecture of Africa; port cities and visual cultures of the Indian Ocean world; comparative urbanism; the cultural dimension of globalization; modernity in Africa; Islamic arts of Africa; histories of photography in Africa

Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere, Indiana University Press, 2016

World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean, Krannert Art Museum, 2017 (co-edited with Allyson Purpura)

“Beyond Multiple Modernities: East African Port Cities as the Space Between” Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art Issue 28 (May 2020): pp. 116-125.

 “The Trans-African Highway: Infrastructure Between Statehood and Selfhood” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (with Kenny Cupers) (vol 79 no. 1 March 2020): pp. 61-81.

 “Subjects and Subjugation: Swahili Coast Studio Photography in Global Circulation,” MoMA’s Post: Notes on Modern and Contemporary Art around the Globe (March 2019)

 “The Surface of Things: A History of Photography from the Swahili Coast,” Art Bulletin 101, no. 1 (March 2019): pp. 48–69

 “Toward an Itinerant Art History: The Swahili Coast of Eastern Africa” Eighteenth-Century Art Worlds Global and Local Geographies of Art, editors Michael Yonan and Stacey Sloboda (London: Bloombury, 2018): pp. 227-244

 “Provocations from the Coast: Toward a Networked History of Swahili Coast Arts,” in World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean, edited by Prita Meier and Allyson Purpura (Washington University Press, 2017): pp. 12-21 (with Allyson Purpura)

 “Curators’ Notes: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean,” Journal18 (October2017), (with Allyson Purpura)

 “Unmoored:  On Oceanic Objects in Coastal Eastern Africa, 1700-1900” Special Issue: “The Indian Ocean as Aesthetic Space” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 36(3) 2017: pp.  355-67

 “The Swahili House: A Historical Ethnography of Modernity,” in The Swahili World, editors Stephanie Wynne-Jones and Adria LaViolette (London: Routledge, 2017): pp. 629-641

 “Stories of Stone: The Transformation and Reinvention of Swahili Coast Pillar Tombs," Dumbarton Oaks Studies of the History of Landscape Architecture, Vol. 35 (March 2016): pp.139-160

 “Chinese Porcelain and Muslim Port Cities: Mercantile Materiality in Coastal East Africa,” Art History 38(4) 2015, 702-717

 “Modernism in Africanist Art History: The Making of a New Discipline” in The Modernist World, edited by Allana Lindgren and Stephen Ross. Routledge Worlds, April 2015


"The Problem of Time in African Art History,” in African Art and the Shape of Time, ed. Prita Meier and Raymond Silverman (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art Publications, 2012): pp. 6-17.


“Beyond Geography: Africa and Colonial Time in ‘Who Knows Tomorrow’” in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art Issue 28 (Summer 2011): pp. 68-77


“Authenticity and Its Modernist Discontents: The Colonial Encounter in African and Middle Eastern Art History,” The Arab Studies Journal Vol. XVIII no. 1 (Spring 2010): pp. 12-44


“Objects on the Edge: Swahili Coast Logics of Display,” African Arts Vol. 42 No. 4 (Winter 2009): pp. 8-23

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