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Most Western narratives reduce Africa to a monolith of wanting and lack. Africa is (just) a (single) country. Africa is corrupt. Africa is backward, savage, dirty, diseased—a shithole. Tales of its wealth, innovation, diversity, and history apart from colonization are often dismissed as mythmaking and hyperbole.
A new exhibition at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art hopes to shift perceptions of Africa in favor of more nuanced conversations about its historical role and importance to the world. “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa” is the first major U.S. exhibition to explore medieval trade and commerce in West Africa. Fueled by a desire for fine gold and salt, merchants across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East traversed the Sahara, home to several powerful African kingdoms, interacting with the people and experiencing the culture as they purchased their goods. Through curatorial juxtapositions and careful attention to storytelling, “Caravans of Gold” demonstrates the important role West Africa played in fueling global development from the eighth to 16th centuries.
“Caravans of Gold” presents more than 250 artworks and archeological fragments, both African and European, and spans five centuries and thousands of miles of geographic terrain. From textiles, terra-cotta figures, and text fragments to ivory and cast-copper sculptures, ceramics, and gold coins, the exhibit tells a story of sophisticated and multidirectional trade networks and global interdependence, emphasizing the through lines between language and culture, and proving that the medieval era was not just about knights in chain mail fighting on behalf of their feudal lords.
In development for nearly eight years, the exhibition is an ambitious undertaking for a relatively small university museum like the Block. Normally an exhibition of this scale would appear at a much larger institution, such as the Met or the Art Institute, but Northwestern’s multidisciplinary approach to learning and its worldwide connections and influential reach helped facilitate the necessary loans and collaborations to realize it. (The university is also home to the first African Studies program in the U.S., founded in 1947, as well as the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies that houses the largest separate collection of Africana in the world.) Support, in part through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the university’s Buffett Institute for Global Studies, among others, enabled the Block to consult with partner institutions and archaeologists in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria and welcome these African colleagues to Northwestern’s Evanston campus.
“It was an opportunity to really think about history in a wholly new way and also to ensure that it was not just told by Europeans because the witnesses—the chroniclers—were often writing in Arabic,” Lisa Corrin, the director of the Block Museum, explains. “It’s a kind of activism, I would say, on the part of the Block and Northwestern to do this, because it [shows] how an exhibition can make a difference and change the way people think about an entire continent.”
What remains of the material legacy of medieval Africa is fragmented, which adds to the difficulty of creating a comprehensive exhibition of art and artifacts from the period. Encouraging viewers to rely on an interdisciplinary approach to conjure the material and cultural world of the time—to use the “archaeological imagination”—can spark new ways of thinking about the period. “This kind of interdisciplinary, academic approach has really become the cutting edge of what’s happening [in art history],” Corrin adds. “This is an exhibition about beautiful objects. While there are a lot of fragments, they’re matched together to make a point about what that past looks like now.”
Drawing on recent archaeological discoveries from significant Saharan trading cities, including Sijilmasa (in present-day Morocco) and Gao and Tadmekka (both in present-day Mali), curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock juxtaposes art and objects from the region, including noteworthy loans from partner museums and institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, with more familiar medieval artworks from Europe and Asia. These contrasts illuminate aesthetic and cultural connections among the people who lived along the trade routes. “One of the things that is most exciting about the exhibition is that it can’t be compartmentalized as an African exhibition or a medieval exhibition . . . it can’t easily be pigeonholed,” Berzock says. “It is an exhibition that has Africa as its foundation, but it connects Africa so expansively with a much broader worldview.”
Before visitors even enter the galleries, they’re asked to pause to view a short film, From Sunrise to Sunset (2018), created during one of the curatorial research team’s trips to Morocco. Sweeping shots of the desert loop quietly and subtly across the screen, signalling to viewers that they should forget everything they thought they knew about medieval times.
The first gallery focuses on gold and salt, two of the most prized commodities of the time. Maps show major trade routes snaking through the Sahara during the medieval period, linking the cities and towns that served as trading centers. Southern routes connected traders to the Niger River and Africa’s forest region in Mali and Ghana, while routes going north tapped into the vast networks of the Mediterranean Sea and across Europe. Eastern pathways connected Saharan cities to the Levant and to the Silk Roads of Central and East Asia.
West African gold, prized for its purity and quality, served as the foundation for these cross-cultural connections, visible in common aesthetic traits among the art and objects in the gallery. A reproduction of the Catalan Atlas, one of the few surviving examples of medieval cartography, is attributed to the Majorcan Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques (1325–87) and abuts vitrines of Islamic dinars and gold denarii from the Roman Empire. Its six richly illustrated parchment-on-wood panels show kingdoms spanning from the Atlantic to China and from Scandinavia to the Rio Oro in Africa, including Mali, whose famous king Mansa Musa is depicted sitting on a throne holding an ornate scepter and a gold coin. Wall-mounted Christian icons painted with egg tempera and gilded with gold share wall space with textiles intricately woven with silk threads wrapped in finely spun gold. Folios from prized decorative Qur’ans and Jewish prayer books, both influenced by Byzantine luxury manuscripts, show just how integral gold was to daily life around the world.
After making a case for the centrality of valuable African goods in global trade, the exhibition makes a literal transition through an arched gateway that recalls the entrance to the ancient city of Sijilmasa on the northern edge of the Sahara. To reconstruct the fragmented material remains of medieval West Africa, this section explicitly juxtaposes archaeological fragments with fully intact artworks. Terra-cotta figures and pottery displayed alongside tools and vitrines filled with glazed ceramics, small lanterns, beads, and semiprecious stones provide a picture of daily life by tracing the flow of goods as well as visual and cultural information through the region. Small ceramic biconical beads and a 10th- or 11th-century gold bead from Egypt or Syria intricately detailed with filigree anticipate modern examples from Senegal. The section also highlights the importance of the Niger River and Dogon Plateau to facilitating trade: both provided access to Africa’s forest region and served as a gateway between east and west trade routes. A fragment of Chinese Qingbai porcelain discovered at an archeological site in Mali is shown with a bowl from 12th-century China covered in a stylized flower pattern, demonstrating cultural and material exchange among traders far afield.
A key component of the exhibition focuses on the kinds of stories museums tell about Africa. While much of the material history from Africa’s medieval period has not been catalogued by Western cultural institutions, important artworks, texts, and objects have survived through surprising means. Stunning examples of woven indigo-dyed tapestry fragments that were preserved in caves for centuries, excavated in the 1960s and ’70s, and are now in the care of Mali’s national museum serve as compelling examples of African people recognizing the value of the continent’s resources, history, and material culture, and that they are perfectly capable of caring for their own cultural objects. Displaying these works in “Caravans of Gold” further shifts the narrative of African art and culture to something more than stories of colonial subjugation, erasure, and appropriation.
Throughout “Caravans of Gold,” quotes from West African merchants, traders, and rulers of the time feature prominently along with text fragments giving the perspective of people interacting along these routes. A number of videos installed at strategic points throughout the space provide additional social and historical context about the circulation of culture, language, and goods. One of the last remaining salt merchants in Morocco speaks about his business today and the legacy of the Saharan trade; a scholar of medieval glass bead production discusses the possibilities inherent in exhibiting archaeological fragments with other artworks; another scholar discusses French medieval sculpture practices using African materials.
The videos and texts also provide insight into the spread of Arabic language and culture across northern Africa. A key figure in the story of Saharan trade is the aforementioned Mansa Musa, the 14th-century king of the Mali Empire that reached from the Atlantic coast across present-day Mali and parts of the Sahara Desert. Musa, thought to be the wealthiest person ever to live, converted to Islam, and while making the required hajj to Mecca, visited the sultan of Cairo. A number of writings describe the splendid gifts the sultan presented to him. Those text fragments, in conjunction with 13th- and 14th-century silk and gold textile fragments, allow visitors to imagine what the beautiful robes of honor Musa was given may have looked like. During his travels, Musa’s caravan distributed loads of gold all along the route from Mali to Mecca and back, his wealth and generosity eventually culminating in the creation of the architectural, commercial, and cultural marvel, the capital city of Timbuktu.
The final section of “Caravans of Gold” makes explicit connections to the contemporary world. All of the works from Nigeria in this section are on loan from its national museum system; none have ever been seen in the U.S. before. A showstopper Seated Figure from the late 13th or 14th century, is an almost life-size sculpture of a ruler. Tests show the copper used for casting it is likely from the French Alps. In a pointed gesture, the figure is positioned to face an anteroom filled with French and Italian ivory sculptures—objects familiar to those viewers who have seen other exhibitions from the medieval period. The Virgin and Child (ca. 1275-1300) from France depicts a familiar scene of a Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus, but its size, roughly 14 by six by five inches, indicates that the ivory used to create it is from African elephants, since Saharan elephants grow larger tusks than their Indian counterparts. One can imagine the circulation of French copper and African ivory as merchants traveled back and forth along these routes.
On view well into the summer, the exhibition makes room for a wide range of audiences—archeologists, anthropologists, medieval scholars, history buffs, people interested in art and global affairs, schoolchildren—to reconsider notions of Africa. Corrin explains, “I want to underscore that we are free and open to all, that there is no cost to visiting this exhibition to anyone. We are very privileged as a university, and part of our job as a university is to give back. We do our very best to create an environment where people who may not be used to stepping into an academic art museum on a university campus should be welcomed.”
“Caravans of Gold” creates new points of reference by not only reveling in the beauty of the objects but also introducing viewers to the idea of a vibrantly interconnected global culture, including the sophisticated social, political, cultural, and economic systems of West Africa. So much of Africa’s relationship to Europe has involved defamation, appropriation, and control. Narratives highlighting the agency of West African people in the medieval period allow for a rediscovery of the continent’s rich history, cultures, and contributions to the evolution of global trade and culture. “Caravans of Gold” is an important gesture in helping people understand that Africa has always been connected to the world and can share its story on its own terms. v