This essay explores the varied reasons why Asian trade ceramics, especially ornately patterned porcelain plates, were avidly collected on the Swahili coast of eastern Africa from the ninth century onwards. While the long history of the Swahili culture of porcelain is traced, it concentrates on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the logic of commodification and mass-production transformed the local use and meaning of trade ceramics. Entire rooms were filled with hundreds of colourful plates, in a sense mirroring the multiplication processes of mass production. This new emphasis on assembling porcelain so that it became a spectacular mass of things also increased its potency in Swahili systems of signifi cation. No longer connected to a specific time or place, it manifested mercantile materiality in its pure form as a commodity. Embedded in porcelains history of transoceanic trade, then, is an alternative understanding of its significance on the Swahili coast.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Visual Arts and Performing Arts