Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time puts fragments to work. The book, edited by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, is the companion publication to the exhibition of the same name that opened in January 2019 at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, traveled to Toronto's Aga Khan Museum in September 2019, and was planned for the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in April 2020 (delayed due to the Smithsonian's temporary closure to contain the spread of COVID-19). With 250 objects from 35 lenders, the exhibition highlights material products of West Africa from the eighth through the fifteenth centuries, when a large-scale trade network stretched across the Sahara, moving gold, salt, and enslaved people along with ceramics, copper, glass beads, ivory, leather, and textiles, over great distances. While some objects from this epoch have survived mostly intact—the exhibition and publication feature stunning examples of terracotta and copper-alloy sculptures lent by museums in Mali, Nigeria, and Morocco— the vast majority of material remains are in far from pristine condition. Although art museums prefer to showcase complete objects, Caravans of Gold convincingly argues that fragments can offer compelling examples of cultural production and exchange on local and global levels. For the volume's contributors, fragments are not inert scraps or dead ends, but are vibrating with information, open-ended, with the capacity to enrich what kinds of stories are told about Africa in both the scholarly and public realms.
Before joining the Block Museum as associate director of curatorial affairs in 2014, Berzock was for eighteen years the curator of African art at the Art Institute of Chicago. There, she presented a number of internationally acclaimed exhibitions including Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria (2008) and successfully brought about the permanent collection's relocation from the basement to expanded galleries on the first floor. But one can easily imagine how Berzock's long-term, firsthand familiarity with the contested status of Africa objects in large art museums—from decisions about lighting, interpretive text, and “authenticity,” to the struggle for funding and regular representation on the museum's exhibition program, to that old chestnut from your Aunt Susan and the board of trustees alike—“But Is It Art?”—might lead to this full-throated, joyful rebuttal to precolonial West Africa's ahistorical isolation.
The volume is divided into four sections. The first paragraph of Berzock's introductory essay, the opening chapter in Section I: “Groundwork,” succinctly lays out the where, when, why, what, and how of Caravans of Gold. To summarize: the Sahara, the world's largest desert, has been popularly painted as a barren, inhospitable expanse of earth that, until European ships opened up maritime trade along the Atlantic coast in the late fifteenth century, effectively cordoned off West Africa, preventing sustained contact with dynamic Mediterranean and Middle Eastern spheres of trade. In fact, between the eighth and the sixteenth centuries, camel caravans transported large numbers and varieties of goods and people across the Sahara and its hinterlands, linking regional trade networks and local sites of production in the Inland Niger Delta, the Lake Chad Basin, the Central Sahel, and the Western Sudan with geographically distant systems centered on North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, and Europe. The Saharan region's key role in this global economy has, over time, faded from popular memory, supplanted by a historical narrative of Africa dominated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonialism.
The subtitle of the exhibition and catalogue is Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa. The deployment of “medieval” is sure to raise hackles. Applied to Europe, the term broadly includes the millennium between 500 and 1500 ce, but its suitability in non-European contexts has been challenged by scholars who rightly push back on the pernicious Eurocentrism encoded in language that merges temporality with culture. As Berzock points out, the “global turn” in academic scholarship has promoted mobility, encounter, and exchange as themes that undergird much of human experience and culture around the world. In the traditionally Eurocentric citadels of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, this has prompted interdisciplinary efforts to understand more about direct and indirect contact between Europe and parts of the African continent, Asia, and later the Americas, and to extrapolate historical narratives that reflect this expansive perspective. The “global turn” in Renaissance and Early Modern Studies has been immensely important in fleshing out the history of European collecting into something more than a nebulous but inanimate “taste for the exotic.” In that context, the displaced object, embraced as a literal and figurative fragment (and what is collecting if not the assembling of fragments?), has the power to materially link people and lands that have in the past been deemed inconsequential to Europe's cultural development. In Caravans of Gold, the fragment is made powerful outside of Europe.
At its best, the “global” is “a methodology of inclusion” (Keene 2019: 8) and Caravans of Gold makes a significant contribution by centering West Africa in each of the nineteen essays. (Eight of the contributors are themselves from West African nations.) Importantly, archaeology is well represented, a field which is often not as visible although it provides the fundamental details on which so much “global” work relies, if we are to reverse the imbalance of perspectives in the writing of premodern histories. Here, essays with an archaeological focus are integrated with those of art historians, historians, anthropologists, political scientists, and material scientists, smartly synthesized in service of the archaeological imagination. That attentiveness carries over into the volume's quality production, namely the consideration given to design and layout and the inclusion of many high-resolution color images. Notes are helpfully provided after each essay rather than massed at the end, and the bibliography, while not exhaustive, is an good resource for readers looking for paths further into the cultural history of West Africa. I found myself wishing that a checklist had been appended, as the ample information accompanying each figure in the book does not indicate if it featured in the exhibition; however, the exhibition content shifted slightly between venues, and the companion website makes a checklist available for download. The website also features more maps, along with case studies and videos, and the Block Museum has been working with public schools to build curriculum resources for educators.
The theme of representation—who and what is represented, who is doing the representing—connects the essays in the first section. Chris Abani, a Nigerian-born poet, novelist, and scholar, meditates on “the narrative possibilities offered by the fragment” (p. 43). He describes Ife divination as a poetic coming-together of material paraphernalia, real and symbolic fragments that are “stand-ins for objects that cannot be used in the process.” His words—“enactment,” “staged desire,” “nested,” “need”—glide between poetic and academic language, pulling the reader into a straightforward description of the divination process without painting it as an unchanging, predictable tenet of the Ife religious worldview. Then, speaking directly to the character of the exhibition's material make-up, Abani lays out the emotion embedded in and evoked by fragments through time and space, their powerful incompleteness which makes them capable of carrying so much meaning, and finally, the duty of the fragment to construct, sustain, or tear down the historical narratives that say as much about our present and future as they do about the past.
Ralph A. Austen considers what pre- and post-sixteenth century sources reveal about gold in medieval West Africa. Archaeology has not uncovered much specific to gold in this early period as sites have been in use for centuries, some into the present day. Medieval Arabic accounts of trans-Saharan trade, discussed at length in Robert Launay's preceding essay, relied on information from North African merchants who did not themselves venture into the Sudanic region but relayed reports from Wangara traders, who peppered their stories with monstrous beasts, perhaps to dissuade penetration by outsiders. Evidence instead comes from later periods. European visitors to the region, eager to secure consistent access to gold, left written descriptions with some details; complemented by geological studies, oral histories, and Arabic records, an overview has emerged of the location of gold deposits, the technology and labor of mining it (including the role of slavery), and the gold economy's relationship to the rise and fall of empires in West Africa.
Chapter 5, “Fragments at Risk: The Protection of Cultural Heritage in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria,” outlines the primary threats to the cultural heritage of medieval West Africa and the actions taken at national levels to protect this patrimony. The authors, Mamadi Dembélé, Ahmed Ettahiri, Youssef Khiara, and Yousuf Abdallah Usman, are all scholars and directors of institutions in these nations, and are deeply aware of destruction wrought on many levels by looting connected to the art market and extremism, as well as unchecked development of landscapes. That these important cultural institutions partnered with the Block Museum for the exhibition and catalogue, bringing their expertise to the project as it developed and lending remarkable objects not yet well known in North America, is encouraging; international support and public awareness are needed to ensure continued protection.
Section II, “Sites,” opens with an essay by art historian Cynthia Becker which reads change and continuity in social and aesthetic realms in concert with the ecological history of the Sahara. The next five chapters adjust focus, moving the reader in for a closer look at notable sites in Nigeria, Mali, and Morocco and showcasing the work of archaeologists who have in some cases worked for years at these sites uncovering and analyzing material fragments. Ronald Messier and Abdallah Fili integrate their data from Sijilmasa with evidence for the region's political history, considering how trade and regime change affected the economy; Sam Nixon contextualizes excavated finds from the early Saharan caravan town of Tadmekka; Mamadou Cissé summarizes the excavations at Gao Ancien and Gao Saney; Mamadi Dembélé touches on Jenne-Jeno and Timbuktu; and Detlef Gronenborn delves into the textual and archaeological sources for Kanem, Lake Chad, and Bornu from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. These sites may be familiar to specialists, but the authors' integration of material analysis with historical narratives on local and regional levels will still bring insight.
In Section III, “Matter in Motion,” the case studies revolve around movement. An analysis of gold molds and crucibles by Gianluca Pastorelli, Marc Walton, and Sam Nixon is juxtaposed with a chapter on Islamic dinars by Ronald Messier, bringing the creation and dissemination of currency into the discourse on medieval West Africa's economic impact. With manuscript pages, amulets, and talismanic textiles, Mauro Nobili explores the spread of Islam, the written word, and the production of scholarship in Arabic by intellectual communities in West Africa, the most familiar being Timbuktu. Archaeologist Abidemi Babatunde Babalola addresses the circulation of glass beads, perhaps the most emblematic of trade goods, but challenges the popular notion that all beads were imported into West Africa with evidence for local production in Igbo Olokun. These essays follow Guérin's, which opens with a rigorous but thoroughly readable discussion of ivory, copper, and gold as natural resources that were both valued locally and traded across the Sahara. Guérin integrates Arabic sources and material analysis in her study of several remarkable objects, including the tenth-century copper-alloy “rope pot” excavated at Igbo Ukwu and the large gold Rao Pectoral (c. 1300) found in a burial near Saint-Louis, Senegal, but it is her appreciative descriptions of the technique and artistry invested in these pieces that caused me to flag this chapter for my parents when I found my review copy on the top of their bedside to-read pile.
In “Reverberations,” the fourth and final section, the case studies offer paths for engaging with the legacy of trans-Saharan exchange post-sixteenth century, when a shift toward Atlantic sea trade sent the routes trekked by camel caravans into decline. Raymond Silverman looks at the histories of prestige metal vessels brought to West Africa, three originally from England and seven from Mamluk Egypt. The Mamluk brass bowls and basins are incised with Arabic script dating their production to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a time when copper alloy was much in demand in West Africa. These objects were not melted down for reuse, however; six were kept in Akan communities in Ghana, their Mamluk identity lost over time and replaced with deep local significance, while the seventh was found in an elite burial site in Durbi Takusheyi, Nigeria, which archaeologists date to the fifteenth century. The volume's final essay, by Gayla Ben-Arieh, brings patterns of movement across the Sahara into the present day and shifts the focus from material to human mobility. Evoking the maps of medieval trade routes, polities, and regions inside the front and back covers, a map of current migration routes from West Africa to Europe testifies to the continued resonance of Saharan crossings.
The lived reality and the public perception of these modern journeys are profoundly informed by current economic, political, and public health conditions increasingly entangled at a global level. In her introduction, Berzock writes, “our contemporary moment is defined by a rise in global connectivity, as well as by entrenched ideas about difference” (p. 23). I might add that this moment is further characterized by a growing discomfort with global connectivity and its perceived disregard for and even erasure of national borders and local identities. I write this review from Italy, where concerns about EU immigration policies, border security, and economic stagnation fuel anxieties about African migration, represented by politicians and the press as both arising from and giving rise to poverty and violence. Making visible an informed representation of West Africa and its critical role in the medieval world, but also beyond, seems especially urgent. In a recent essay, Kimberley Anne Coles, Kim F. Hall, and Ayanna Thompson assert that if the study of pre- and early modern history is to survive and thrive, scholars have “an ethical imperative to equip our students to understand and engage critically with the world as it is” (Coles et al. 2019). Caravans of Gold answers this call to action by challenging the historic conceptualization of West Africa, as it has been constructed over centuries by “the West,” offering instead a narrative with vivid images built from the incomplete but potent material remains of the region itself.