This is the first exhaustive study of a piece of furniture that has been used in the Arab world for centuries, and on the East African coast since the early 1800s. The Arab chest caught the attention of expatriates and travellers throughout these regions, and by the mid-20th century it had become a collector’s item in the West.
The author, Sheila Unwin, first came across the chests in East Africa in the early l950s. Since then she has been determined to discover their provenance and unravel their stylistic origins. In The Arab Chest, this journey of detection is reflected in her historical overviews, which cover the early Arab trading networks, Arabs and Persians in East Africa, the Gulf and Oman, the Mughals in India, and the early explorations and trading expeditions of the Portuguese, Dutch and British from East Africa to the Far East. Her study of these enables her to trace the cultural influences that have combined to produce the chests, and to chart their complex origins.
More than a historical survey, The Arab Chest is also a guide to the classification, care and cleaning of chests. It is lavishly illustrated with archive and contemporary photographs and maps, while line drawings demonstrate the differences in classification and type of chests and fittings. Owners of these fine pieces will find this an invaluable companion and resource. Sheila Unwin greatly enriches our appreciation of an artefact which can now be seen, in the light of her research, as a fascinating embodiment of the old Indian Ocean trading network.