Caravans of Gold at the Block Museum of Art – New Information on an Ancient Topic

Zachary Austin shared some points from the Caravans of Gold Exhibition at the Block Museum of Art

The Block Museum of Art is hosting a remarkable exhibition, “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange across Medieval Sharan Africa”.  When this exhibition opened, I was away but I could not wait to get back to see it. I went on my own, but happened to see friends there. I agree with their comment that this is a remarkable exhibition. It is multifaceted with lots to see, listen to, and absorb. I just missed a guided docent tour which I would recommend as this provides the opportunity to ask questions and share ideas. Informal tours are offered Tuesdays at noon and Sundays at 3 pm, and also by request on the Block’s website.

Approaching the Block Museum of Art

This 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 in the medieval period. The participants have been advisors to the exhibition and are featured in videos throughout the exhibition. Several also wrote essays for the exhibition companion publication. I found the videos fascinating and instructive.  

Assembled at this exhibition are art and fragments from the Silk Road of Asia, the spice routes of the Middle East and the gold routes of Saharan Africa.  These fragments tell a story that is hard to imagine as they reveal the forgotten glory of Africa’s medieval past. Embodied in the exhibition is the fascinating story of King Mansa Musa, possibly the richest man that ever lived.  In 1324 this ruler of the West African empire of Mali set out on a hajj, the religious pilgrimage to Mecca.  The entourage included 6,000 courtiers, 12,000 servants and 100 camel loads of pure gold.  You can also find out about his scholarly interests, that included 25,000 students and more than 800,000 manuscripsts. 

Video interviews help to tell the story

This exhibition recently caught the attention of the New York Times, “The Block Museum is proud to be named in The New York Times as one of the nation’s innovative art museums raising the cultural bar on campuses. Writer Kerry Hannon looks to the exhibition

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time as a groundbreaking project:Across the country, university and college museums run the gamut from those featuring contemporary art and ancient relics mostly used as teaching tools to world-class collections tackling groundbreaking projects and traveling exhibitions… College and university art museums have a common goal: to raise the bar for the academic and cultural life of a campus and its environs.”

Salt and gold were currency

Watch for some once only opportunities in April when Northwestern University will host a week-long gathering of six archaeologists from Mali, Morocco, the U.K. and the U.S., working at the cutting-edge of research on medieval Africa. The unprecedented gathering April 22 to 26 will bring this group of international scholars together for the first time to share their new findings about Africa’s understudied medieval period with public audiences. The research points to Africa’s participation in extensive trade and global interconnections in the eighth to16th centuries.

Public programs include “From the Field – International Archaeologists in Conversation” at 6 p.m. on April 24 and a full-day symposium entitled “Trans-Saharan Exchange and the Global Medieval: Visual and Cultural Studies Research at the Crossroads of Disciplines and Regions” hosted by Northwestern’s department of art history and The Block.

Elephant tusks traveled to become ivory figures

The public programs are free and will take place at The Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus. For more information visit The Block Museum website or call 847-491-4000.

“‘Caravans of Gold’ makes the past tangible through rare frag­mented remains that were excavated from key archaeologi­cal sites around the Sahara, sites that were once thriving cities and towns involved in long distance commerce,” said exhibition curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the Block Museum associate director of curatorial affairs.

“The groundbreaking work of these archaeologists is at the heart of the project. Poring over reports of sites excavated by them, I was struck by the variety of commercial goods taken out of the ground, and by their ties to far-reaching networks of exchange that stretched in multiple directions,” Berzock said.

Be sure to see this remarkable exhibition before it leaves for Toronto and, then the Smithsonian Museum. 

Photos: B. Keer

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