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The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University invites audiences this winter to travel to a time when West African gold fueled expansive trade and drove the movement of people, culture and beliefs. 

Opening Jan. 26, 2019, Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Midieval Saharan Africa is a first-of-its-kind exhibition that celebrates West Africa’s historic and under-recognized global significance and showcases the objects and ideas that were exchanged at the crossroads of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe from the 8th to 16th centuries. 

The exhibition’s opening celebration includes an open house event with hands-on art-making, West African music and a program featuring Gus Casely-Hayford, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Caravans of Gold curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock and Nigerian-born author and Northwestern English professor Chris Abani. 

Caravans of Gold draws on recent archaeological discoveries, including rare fragments from major medieval African trading centers like Sijilmasa in Morocco, and Gao and Tadmekka in Mali. These “fragments in time” are shown alongside works of art that invite audiences to imagine them as they once were. They serve as the starting point for a new understanding of the medieval past and for seeing the present in a new light.

The exhibition presents more than 250 artworks and fragments spanning types, styles and religious practices, representing more than five centuries and a vast geographic expanse. The works, both European and African, convey a story of the global networks and multi-directional trade at play in the medieval world. 

To tell this little-known history, The Block Museum has secured rare and important loans from partner institutions in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria. Many of these objects have never traveled outside of their home countries. Some are among the greatest treasures of the medieval period in West Africa, including several rare manuscripts from libraries in Timbuktu.

The loans from Nigeria include iconic artworks -- such as a near life-size copper seated figure from Tada and a rope-entwined vessel from Igbo Ukwu -- that stand alongside the greatest works of art from any region or culture. 

“Archaeologists’ site reports are full of enticing descriptions of material fragments uncovered in towns around the Sahara that were once thriving centers of trade; fragments of lusterware, glass vessels, glass beads, cast copperwork, iron work, terracotta and, occasionally, even goldwork have all been found at these sites,” said exhibition curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock, The Block Museum of Art’s associate director of curatorial affairs. “By placing these fragments alongside more familiar medieval works of art, ‘Caravans of Gold’ conjures an all but forgotten time and place.

“With the exhibition, we are inviting audiences to throw out their perceptions of medieval knights and castles and journey with us to a medieval world with Africa at its center,” Berzock said.

Caravans of Gold continues through July 21, 2019 at The Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston campus. 

​Supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Buffett Center for Global Studies, among many funding organizations, the groundbreaking exhibition will travel to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum in Fall 2019 and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Spring 2020.

Bioconical bead, Egypt or Syria, 10th-11th century Gold; filigree, granulation, rope wire (photo courtesy of The Aga Khan Museum).

New Block Museum Exhibition Celebrates Unsung Global Significance of West Africa

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