Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time Preview – Coming to Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art

Announcement for "Caravans of Gold"

An exciting and important exhibition comes to The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa” will debut at the Block Jan. 26 through July 21, 2019, 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). Catch this exhibition before it gets away.

Bioconical bead, Egypt or Syria, 10th -11th century Gold; The Aga Kahn Museum

The “Caravans of Gold” exhibition includes an unprecedented number of loans from the national collections of Mali, Morocco and Nigeria, never before seen in the United States, including from Mali irreplaceable terracotta sculptures, manuscripts and the delicate remains of woven indigo-dyed cloth from the medieval period that are among Africa’s oldest surviving textiles. From Nigeria come sculptures in bronze and terracotta, some dating to the 9th century. And from Morocco there are gold coins, glazed ceramics and carved stucco architectural embellishments.

Mansa Musa, A very rich man

A centerpiece is the story of the “Wealthiest Man in History”, a key figure in the story of sub-Saharan trade, Mansa Musa, the 14th-century king of the Empire of Mali. It was Musa’s kingdom that controlled access to one of the most productive gold regions in the world, making him one of the wealthiest people in history. The exhibition conjures Musa’s pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca through luxury objects that relate to descriptions of his stay with the sultan of Cairo, Egypt.

I had the opportunity of learning about this exhibition from Ali Kotoch, Curatorial Research Associate.

Detail of the Catalan Atlas; 1375; Bibliothèque nationale de France; on view in the exhibition as a reproduction

What was the inspiration for the Caravans of Gold exhibition?

The motivation behind Caravans of Gold lies in the power of fragments.  In Caravans of Gold, the past is made tangible by the unique fragmented remains excavated from key archaeological sites that were once thriving cities and towns involved in Saharan commerce.

Juxtaposing fragments with artworks from across regions and time frames, and drawing on medieval texts in Arabic that describe Saharan trade, the exhibition illuminates global connection in the medieval period.

Block Museum staff uncrating one of the great treasures of the exhibition, Seated Figure, Possibly Ife, Tada, Nigeria, Late 13th-14th century; National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria

What is your role in this project?  How long have you been working on it?

Curatorial Research Associate. 2 years.

I understand that there is an interdisciplinary team that worked on this exhibition. Can you tell me more about how this works?

Caravans of Gold has emerged through an ongoing dialogue among a dedicated group of specialists from multiple disciplines and areas of regional focus. Four meetings with scholars and multiple research trips to Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria have aggregated knowledge and allowed debate about how to tell the story of medieval trans-Saharan exchange.

Coming in January 2019

I understand that this exhibition was possible due to international partnerships.  Can you share more information about this?

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

Many people and institutions have come together to make this exhibition happen. From the project’s start, it has been developed with the input of colleagues from the exhibition’s core African partner countries of Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria.  These institutions share the Block Museum’s commitment to bringing the history of medieval Africa to a broad public and providing access to the invaluable materials of cultural heritage from the period that are at the foundation of the project.

A version of the exhibition in the form of texts and images will return to African lending institutions for display after the North American run.

A selection of excavated finds from Essouk-Tadmekka, including fragments of glazed ceramics (among which is an oil lamp), stone beads and semi-precious stones, a cowrie shell, a fragment of silk textile, a carved stone torso, and vessel glass fragments. Institut des sciences humaines, Mali. Photograph by Clare Britt

Photos: Courtesy of the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University

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