Utilizing a cutting-edge curatorial approach, ‘Caravans of Gold’ juxtaposes fragments and rare treasures to highlight Africa’s global reach.
These object pairings provide evidence of the West Africa’s vast trade systems in which gold and other resources moved throughout the Medieval world. Artworks preserved in Western museums are placed next to archeological fragments excavated in West Africa to allow viewers to make visual sense of these remains of the distant past.
Left: Seated figure; probably Ife, found at Tada, Nigeria; late 13th–14th century; copper with traces of arsenic, lead, and tin; National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria, 79.R18.Right: Virgin and Child; France, ca. 1275–1300; ivory with paint; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, 17.190.295.The style and the extraordinarily thin casting of this naturalistic figure (left) points to its creation at Ife, the royal capital of a powerful kingdom. In the early twentieth century the figure was part of the ritual life of Tada, a small village on the banks of the Niger River 120 miles north of Ife. Tada’s location would have been of strategic importance to Ife, connecting it with long-distance trade. Analysis of the raw copper from which the statue is made suggests that it may have originated in France, traveling along these very trade routes to Ife, where it was cast.Large-scale Virgin and Child statuettes represent the apex of ivory carving in the Gothic period in France, and this sculpture (right) is among the largest. Measuring 6 1/2 inches in diameter at its widest point, the solid statuette could only have been made from the tusk of a Savanna elephant. The artist has maximized the size of the figures of the Virgin and Child obtained from the large tusk, and augmented it further with separate ivory pieces for the throne. This statuette was finished with fine details in gold and paint.
Bottom left: Shield (Agher); Tuareg, Niger, early 20th century; oryx skin, leather, wool, cotton, copper alloy; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Gift of the Estate of Dr. Lloyd Cabot Briggs, 1975. © President and Fellows of Harvard College, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 975-32-50/11886
Bottom right: Openwork disk; excavated at the site of Gao Ancien, Mali; 10th/14th century; copper alloy; Direction nationale du patrimoine culturel, Bamako, Mali
Left: Horse and rider and four figures; Bankoni, Mali, 14th/15th century; terracotta; Art Institute of Chicago, Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment, 1987.314.1–5
This iron knife blade was excavated at Tadmekka, Mali, an important trade center on the southern edge of the Sahara from the tenth to the fifteenth century. A similar blade was found at Gao Ancien (see the case at the center of the gallery). Iron blades have a recent analogue in the form of arm knives from across the region.Sheathed knives of similar size and shape are depicted worn strapped to the upper left arms of medieval terracotta figures. The figures are portrayed wearing bangles, hair ornaments, and pendants that reﬂect the wealth of the region, which was heavily involved in trans-Saharan exchange. Horseman—a common theme—point to the importance of cavalry for expanding influence and maintaining security. A breed of small horses was indigenous to the region, and larger Arabian horses were also imported across the Sahara.In one of the great tragedies of West African history, the vast majority of medieval terracottas have been removed clandestinely from sites by looters without the systematic recording of data that would help us understand them. Nonetheless, important archaeological research in the region provides information that allows us to speculate on their meanings and functions. This group of figures relates stylistically to others that were excavated from mounds near Bamako, Mali’s capital, where they had been intentionally buried. In the nearby Inland Niger Delta region, terracotta figures were found buried in house foundations in the city of Jenne, while at Natamatao, figures of humans and horses were found buried as a group alongside horse skeletons.