Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa at the Block Museum of Art was a cultural tour de force, showcasing more than 250 objects that reframed how visitors look at objects globally from the eighth through the sixteenth centuries and places Africa at the center rather than the peripheries of history and economics. Caravans sought to retool the popular stereotypical historical metanarrative of “medieval” that conjures images of knights at round tables, famines, or a European Renaissance in the making. Juxtaposing archaeological fragments alongside astonishing intact artworks sourced from West and North Africa, the Middle East and Europe, this exhibition told a story of a global network of exchange that coincided with the spread of Islam, rather than Christianity, and was driven by gold, salt, and enslaved bodies. Posing new questions to refocus our attention on and understanding of the meaning of “medieval” in relation to peoples of color and their cultures, this installation and its didactic contextualization were staunchly postcolonial, non-Eurocentric, and one could even say “postmedieval.” Silently challenging the very middleness of such a constructed term, viewers were inadvertently invited to consider where the “middle” actually lies.
Although its primary focus centered on the trade of gold, one had to pass through two nondescript stainless steel doors to enter the exhibition. Once inside, however, the visitor was quickly transported into another conceptual world, greeted by rich, royal blue walls with a video installation of Saharan sand dunes and an in-depth introductory panel that spelled out the aforementioned ambitious—and largely successful—exhibition goals. Taking a hard right and entering the exhibition proper, a stunning scalloped doorway resonant of North African and Islamic architecture coupled with panels in both English and Arabic, as well as a quote by Muslim Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta, drove the project's goals home. Significantly, all section panels were presented in Arabic and English, with quotes from medieval Arabic authors, including scholars, historians, and geographers.
The first section, “A Driving Desire: Gold and Salt” rightly treated the Sahara as the world's portal for accessing West African gold and the corresponding trade in salt. The subtext in this section was Africa's enormous artistic sophistication and innovation in comparison to contemporary Europe. Indeed, it was the splendor of West Africa's gold in the medieval economy that drew Europeans and traders to Africa, as visitors were reminded in a didactic panel and large-scale reproduction of Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques's fourteenth century Catalan Atlas (Fig. 1). Highlighting the economic as well as the intellectual exchange that was catalyzed by the gold trade, this section featured casework containing nuggets of gold, ancient glass weights, and rock salt; Italian florins made from West African gold and exquisite goldworks from Morocco during the Roman period; dinars (an Islamic currency) struck at mints in Sijilmasa, Morocco and the Almoravid empire/Caliphate; European textiles in golden threads; and Jewish, Muslim, and European manuscripts and books inscribed with gold leaf. The show stoppers in “A Driving Desire” were a gold-leafed, indigo-dyed page from the famous Blue Qur'an (Fig. 2) and an eleventh-century Egyptian ring in gold that features arabesque filigree designs and techniques found from Spain to Senegal. A video interview between Addi Ouadderrou and salt merchant Lahbib Rahmiwi provided Africa-centered, multimedia contextualization.
Passing through a Moorish keyhole arch, one entered the alabaster space of section 2, “Saharan Frontiers” (Fig. 3). While the lack of color on the walls felt dramatic and almost unbearably sterile in comparison to the previous room, the section was packed with archaeological fragments from various sites across Mali, Morocco, Egypt, and the Niger River. Stalwart terracottas depicting horses and humans, didactic panels, and several video kiosks explored the remarkable scope of the trans-Saharan trade and one of the most compelling, yet challenging subsections of Caravans: the fragment. Several panels entitled “Giving Context to Fragments” helped with this conceptual heavy lifting by unpacking various unlikely object juxtapositions. For example, Malian artifacts unearthed in Tadmekka, including a fragment of Chinese silk and Qingbai porcelain, were displayed alongside a comparable Song dynasty Chinese bowl with matching celadon hue (Fig. 4). Another juxtaposition featured medieval Bankoni terracotta figures opposite a Tuareg knife and sheath and a knife blade excavated from Tadmekka. Both knives resemble those the figures are adorned with. On loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, the attenuated limbs of these sublime Bankoni figures are lavishly adorned in bangles and their heads crane gracefully upwards (Fig. 5).
According to curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock, these fragments “make visible the story of the thriving African cities and empires that were foundational to the global medieval world”—an “act of retrieval,” according to the Block's director, Lisa Corrin, that visitors are invited to decode as if they were themselves archaeologists (Block Museum 2018). And yet, while the quality and depth of the research was impressive and immediately apparent, the heavy stress on text at times overshadowed the engagement with objects, where more colorful didactic and graphic elements could have brought these fragments to life. The diminutive objects were often laid flat in the confines of bleached vitrines, where they risked being lost to visitors as they were once lost to history. Certainly the content led visitors to ask themselves: What histories are told in the museum space, and by whom? Why do so few whole objects survive? But this reviewer also wondered: Without visual cues to draw the eye, will visitors do the work or simply glide past the powerful remains that challenge what they think they know? Ultimately, while fragmentary, these slices, chunks, and poetic remnants should allow the visitor to challenge perceptions, while building up new ones. Africa is a hub, not just a route along the way to bigger and better places, the fragments tells us (Fig. 6).
Other compelling works in section 2 included Tellem textile fragments excavated from the Bandiagara Escarpment of Mali, as well as a case of Senegalese, Mauritanian, and Moroccan gold jewelry along with an Egyptian biconical bead (Fig. 7) that illustrated parallel forms and techniques found throughout the regions featured in the exhibition. A breathtaking talismanic textile from Senegal embedded with the therapeutic power of the written word was blessedly free of a vitrine for maximum audience appreciation (visible in Figure 8). Several scholarly and religious manuscripts produced from the eleventh to the eighteenth century, many on loan from Institut des hautes études et des recherches islamiques Ahmed Baba, Timbuktu, Mali, completed the section, but felt underemphasized, placed flat in bare, white cases despite their importance. However, several subsection panels and label texts declared the significance of these texts and those found in the amulet necklaces and rings also found in “Saharan Frontiers.” The extraordinary range of the curatorial choices spoke volumes about the gravitas of Arabic scholarship during the medieval period.
Accordingly, one of the most impressive aspects of the exhibition, other than its in-depth scholarship and achingly beautiful selections, was the wide range of loans from institutions in Mali, Nigeria, and Morocco. Forming the backbone of the exhibition, some of these loans were being seen for the first time outside of their home countries and certainly for the first time in the United States. The exceptional lengths to which the Block Museum staff went to secure loans and the partnerships developed with these institutions is highly commendable. Caravans further serves as the model that all such exhibitions and their organizing institutions should strive to achieve.
Some of these impressive loans anchored the next section, “The Long Reach of the Sahara,” which highlighted works from the towns and cities of Nok, Igbo Ukwu, Ife, and Durbi Takusheyi (Fig. 8). All of the works in this section—thirty in total—were on loan from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria. The most breathtaking objects were a tenth century Nok head; an eighth to eleventh century vessel known as the “roped pot” from Igbo Ukwu, which demonstrated a masterful and rare lost-wax casting technique unique to the area; and the transcendent seated figure found at Tada, Nigeria—one of Ife's strategic outposts—and created out of copper likely imported from France (Fig. 9). The works in this gallery were brought to life through extensive didactic panels, a video interview with glass beads scholar Abidemi Babatunde Babalola, and illustrations of archaeological burials. A map which detailed the connection of the west African forest regions with the Central Sudan added further contextualization.
An adjacent subsection gallery, painted the same royal blue of the first section, unpacked African ivory in Europe and was cleverly placed as an echo of the African-focused epicenter—Africa was visually, conceptually, and spatially centered, rather than Europe. In this side gallery, a video of scholar Sarah M. Guérin posed the question, “How did the techniques for ivory carving change throughout the medieval period?” Panel and label texts explored ivory's materiality alongside exquisitely carved tusks, boxes, a diptych, and religious sculptures, all of which placed Africa as the source of such luxury items (visible in Figure 8).
A fourth and much smaller section, “Shifting Away from the Sahara,” reoriented the viewer's focus from the interior to the coastal regions of Africa, as the creation of new trade centers reduced the dominance of trans-Saharan trade and contributed to the growth of the Asante kingdom. A selection of goldweights; a scale, scoop, spoons, and boxes for measuring and storing gold; and nineteenth century golden beads and pendants illustrated the thriving gold trade that built this empire, and a case of copper and brass ewers and bowls emphasized the foreign (British, Arabic, and Egyptian) influence in the area. A fifth and final section, which might have been missed by most, was placed in a separate gallery reached by turning left at the introductory wall rather than right. Entitled “Saharan Echoes,” this space featured a masterfully crafted selection of nomadic North African and Tuareg material culture from the twentieth century that assisted viewers in imagining, through more recent works, what everyday life might have been like traveling the trans-Saharan route alongside gold, salt, and ivory during the medieval period.
Overall, Caravans commendably reached its lofty goals. It functioned not so much as a justification for including Africa in a global history, but a demonstration of its necessity. Rather than reinforce the popular stereotype of the “[European] Middle Ages” as a betwixt and between period of instability and visual void, Caravans chose to highlight the fluorescence of wealth, empires, scholarship, and civilizations concentrated on the African continent and the burgeoning global trade in material and intellectual culture that resulted from this cultural density. The show therefore not only decentered the imaginary of Europe during the medieval period, but an imaginary of Africa as well.
One of the challenges of this exhibition was its hugely ambitious focus—spanning nine centuries of time and three continents of geographic space—with a comparatively modest number of works, many of which were fragments one might easily overlook, in a surprisingly small set of galleries. Yet, this panoramic story told through both fragments and masterworks was also precisely its strength, allowing for stories that personalized and humanized, familiarized and intimated the world of archeology and historic African pasts that at first blush seem unreachable and opaque.
Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa was on view at the Block Museum of Art, Evanston, IL through July 21, 2019. The exhibition then traveled to the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, from September 21, 2019-February 23, 2020, and the National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC, from April 8-November 29, 2020. It is accompanied by a generously illustrated publication edited by Kathleen Bickford Berzock and featuring nineteen scholarly essays by an international and interdisciplinary team of researchers.