Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa

A journey to a medieval world with Africa at its center. An ambitious new exhibition will showcase the splendor and power of the lost kingdoms and commercial centers of Africa, using centuries-old artifacts from sites around the Sahara Desert and artwork from West and North Africa, Europe and the Middle East that reveal the reach of Saharan networks, in a first-of-its-kind show.

Caravans of Gold is the first major exhibition addressing the scope of Saharan trade and the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe from the eighth to sixteenth centuries. Weaving stories about interconnected histories, the exhibition showcases the objects and ideas that connected at the crossroads of the medieval Sahara and celebrates West Africa’s historic and underrecognized global significance.

Presenting more than 250 artworks spanning five centuries and a vast geographic expanse, the exhibition features unprecedented loans from partner institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, many of which will be seen in North America for the first time.

“Africa is forcing those who will listen to reconsider the continent.” – Gus Casely-Hayford

Supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Buffett Center for Global Studies, among many funding organizations, the groundbreaking exhibition will travel to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum in Fall 2019 and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Spring 2020. American literary scholar and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., host of the PBS series “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” said The Block Museum exhibition is significant and timely.

“This is a project that cannot be pigeon-holed as an ‘African exhibition,’” Gates said. “It reaches across boundaries and challenges conventional ideas about Africa, Islam and Medieval.

“The exhibition upends conventional historical narratives of the period by placing the Sahara and West Africa at the center,” he said. “It foregrounds how recent scholarship is compiling these points of reference to build a fuller and more nuanced picture of the period than we’ve ever had before. In doing so it disrupts the usual colonial narrative that begins with the onset of the Black Atlantic slave trade.”

Treasures of the Medieval Period

Caravans of Gold draws on recent archaeological discoveries, including rare fragments from major medieval African trading centers like Sijilmasa, Gao, and Tadmekka. These “fragments in time” are seen alongside works of art that invite us to imagine them as they once were. They are the starting point for a new understanding of the medieval past and for seeing the present in a new light.

To tell this little-known history, The Block Museum has secured rare and important loans from partner institutions in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria. Many of these objects have never traveled outside of their home countries. Some are among the greatest treasures of the medieval period in West Africa, including several rare manuscripts from libraries in Timbuktu.

The loans from Nigeria include iconic artworks — such as a near life-size copper seated figure from Tada and a rope-entwined vessel from Igbo Ukwu — that stand alongside the greatest works of art from any region or culture.

Seated Figure, Possibly Ife, Tada, 
Nigeria, Late 13th-14th century, Copper with traces of arsenic, lead, and tin, H. 54 cm, Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, 79.R18, Image courtesy of National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria.

“Archaeologists’ site reports are full of enticing descriptions of material fragments uncovered in towns around the Sahara that were once thriving centers of trade; fragments of lusterware, glass vessels, glass beads, cast copperwork, iron work, terracotta and, occasionally, even goldwork have all been found at these sites,” said exhibition curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock, The Block Museum of Art’s associate director of curatorial affairs. “By placing these fragments alongside more familiar medieval works of art, ‘Caravans of Gold’ conjures an all but forgotten time and place.

“With the exhibition, we are inviting audiences to throw out their perceptions of medieval knights and castles and journey with us to a medieval world with Africa at its center,” Berzock said.

The opening celebration includes an open house event with hands-on artmaking, West African music and a program featuring Gus Casely-Hayford, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, “Caravans of Gold” curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock and Nigerian-born author and Northwestern English professor Chris Abani.

Virgin and Child, ca. 1275–1300, France, Ivory with paint, 14 1/2 × 6 1/2 × 5 in. (36.8 × 16.5 × 12.7 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, 17.190.295

The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University’s “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa”, continues through July 21, 2019 at The Block Museum, before traveling to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (Sept. 21 2019-Feb. 23, 2020) and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. (April 8-Nov. 29, 2020).

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time at The Block Museum of Art from Block Museum on Vimeo.


The exhibition has benefitted particularly from the partnership of the following institutions: in Mali, the Direction Nationale du Patrimoine Culturel, Institut des Hautes Études et des Rescherches Islamiques Ahmed Baba, the Institut des Sciences Humaines, and the Musée National du Mali; In Morocco, the Fondation Nationale des Musées, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, Royaume du Maroc, and the Musée Bank al-Maghrib; and in Nigeria, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. In addition, the following scholars have served as key advisors through the development of the exhibition: Abdallah Fili, Mamadou Cissé, Mamadi Dembele, Sarah Guérin, Ron Messier, Sam Nixon, and Ray Silverman. They have been joined by Northwestern University faculty and staff including Esmeralda Kale, Alexandria Kotoch, Christina Normore, Rachael Reidl, Zekeria Salem, Amy Settegren, Rebecca Shereikis, and Marc Walton.

→ The Block Museum of Art
“Caravans of Gold”  January 26 to July 21, 2019
40 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus.
10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission is free

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