An ambitious new exhibition opens in January at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston, showcasing 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, it’s a first-of-its-kind show.
“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa” is the first major exhibition to highlight West Africa’s global reach in the medieval period of the 8th to 16th centuries by looking directly at its material remains through loans from Mali, Morocco and Nigeria.
By exploring the global impact of Saharan trade routes on a medieval economy fueled by gold, the exhibition upends historical misconceptions and demonstrates Africa’s influence on medieval Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and beyond.
Bioconical bead, Egypt or Syria, 10th-11th century Gold; filigree, granulation, “rope” wire, The Aga Khan Museum.
“Caravans of Gold” debuts at The Block Jan. 26 and runs through July 21, before traveling to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto in September 2019 and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., in April 2020.
Presenting more than 250 artworks and fragments spanning five centuries and a vast geographic expanse, the exhibition features loans from partner museums and institutions in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria, including many items which have never been presented in the United States.
“Caravans of Gold” is curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, associate director of curatorial affairs at the Block, who has worked closely with an interdisciplinary advisory team of art history, archaeology, history and comparative literature specialists working in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Europe. Berzock was curator of African art at the Art Institute of Chicago before coming to the Block.
“The legacy of medieval trans-Saharan exchange has largely been omitted from Western historical narratives and art histories, and certainly from the way that Africa is presented in art museums,” Berzock said. “‘Caravans of Gold’ has been conceived to shine a light on Africa’s pivotal role in world history through the tangible materials that remain.”
Yusuf Usman, former director general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria and a contributor to the “Caravans of Gold” publication, believes this collaboration is an essential opportunity for museum goers and exhibition partners.
“The richness of our collections has made us a very important resource for telling the story of Africa’s significant contribution toward civilization,” Usman said.