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Caravans of Gold

Northwestern shines a light on medieval Africa as a cultural force

An ambitious new exhibition showcases the splendor and power of the lost kingdoms and commercial centers of Africa, using centuries-old artifacts from sites around the Sahara Desert and artwork from West and North Africa, Europe and the Middle East that reveal the reach of Saharan networks, in a first-of-its-kind show that will open in January at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.

“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa” is the first major exhibition to highlight West Africa’s global reach in the medieval period of the 8th to 16th centuries by looking directly at its material remains through loans from Mali, Morocco and Nigeria.

By exploring the global impact of Saharan trade routes on a medieval economy fueled by gold, the exhibition upends historical misconceptions and demonstrates Africa’s influence on medieval Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

“Caravans of Gold” is open through July 21 before traveling to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto in September and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., in April 2020.

Presenting more than 250 artworks and fragments spanning five centuries and a vast geographic expanse, the exhibition features loans from partner museums and institutions in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria, including many items which have never been presented in the United States.


Virgin and Child, ca. 1275-1300, France, Ivory with paint, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1917. Seated Figure, Possibly Ife, Tada
Nigeria, Late 13th-14th century, Copper with traces of arsenic, lead, and tin, Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

A legacy omitted from Western historical narratives and art histories

“Caravans of Gold” is curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, associate director of curatorial affairs at the Block, who has worked closely with an interdisciplinary advisory team of art history, archaeology, history and comparative literature specialists working in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Europe. Berzock was curator of African art at the Art Institute of Chicago before coming to the Block.

“The legacy of medieval trans-Saharan exchange has largely been omitted from Western historical narratives and art histories, and certainly from the way that Africa is presented in art museums,” Berzock said. “‘Caravans of Gold’ has been conceived to shine a light on Africa’s pivotal role in world history through the tangible materials that remain.”

Yusuf Usman, former director general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria and a contributor to the “Caravans of Gold” publication, believes this collaboration is an essential opportunity for museum goers and exhibition partners.

“The richness of our collections has made us a very important resource for telling the story of Africa’s significant contribution toward civilization,” Usman said.

250artworks and fragments

3African partner countries

8years in the planning


Bioconical bead, Egypt or Syria, 10th-11th century Gold; filigree, granulation, "rope" wire, The Aga Khan Museum.

'This exhibition is an act of retrieval'

New archaeological studies and emerging knowledge in recent years have greatly enhanced scholars’ understanding of the central importance of West Africa in the 8th to 16th centuries. Hundreds of fragments — evidence of vast trade systems — have been unearthed from sites such as Tadmekka and Gao in Mali and Sijilmasa in Morocco. 

“These ‘fragments in time’ are key to conjuring a new vision of the past,” Berzock said. “We have a unique opportunity to use art history to contextualize these fragments and to use the special context of the museum to make visible the story of the thriving African cities and empires that were foundational to the global medieval world.”

“This exhibition is an act of retrieval, bringing together far-flung links to the past in order to correct and enlarge previous scholarly interpretations of medieval Africa,” said Lisa Corrin, the Block’s Ellen Philips Katz Director.

“Fragments, probably the hardest materials for a museum to make visual sense of, hold pride of place here,” Corrin said. “We are inviting visitors to ‘read’ fragments, as archeologists do, to imagine the past.”


The wealthiest man in history

A key figure in the story of sub-Saharan trade is Mansa Musa, the 14th-century king of the Empire of Mali. Musa's kingdom 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.


Works that illuminate the play of borders and territories

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.

Works that illuminate the play of borders and territories hold a central role in the exhibition. The terracotta figures from the Bankoni Region of Mali, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, are self-representations of people involved in trans-Saharan trade. A richly hued 14th-century Italian painting of the crucifixion covered with gold leaf, on loan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, is one example of the many treasures on view from the Western canon. In the context of the exhibition, the work — embellished with gold that likely was transported along Saharan caravan routes — takes on an entirely new dimension.

Central to “Caravans of Gold” is the innovative use of precious archeological fragments, some minute in size, in the form of broken pieces of glazed and unglazed pottery, colored shards of glass vessels, copper and iron work, glass and semi-precious stone beads, and extremely rare wisps of textiles, that together animate the imagination.

“The Block Museum of Art is committed to telling stories that expand and challenge mainstream art histories,” noted Corrin. “'Caravans of Gold' is an exhibition that exemplifies this commitment and celebrates Northwestern's unique strengths in championing innovative research, fostering interdisciplinary connections and cultivating global perspective. A network of institutional and international partnerships allows the museum to serve as the connecting hub for a project that spans continents and millennia.”

A forthcoming companion book of essays, co-published by the Block Museum of Art and Princeton University Press, will expand the focus of the project and is designed to serve as a significant new resource on the subject, based on the most up-to-date research across fields of study.


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 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. Pictured: Foliate bowl with stylized peony spray, China, Northern Song dynasty, 12th century, Porcelain with underglaze carved decoration, Art Institute of Chicago (left); compared to fragment of Qingbai porcelain excavated at Taddemaka, Mali, China, Northern Song dynasty, 10th-12th century, Institut des sciences humaines, Bamako (right).

We are inviting visitors to 'read' fragments, as archeologists do, to imagine the past.”

Lisa Corrin
Ellen Philips Katz Director of the Block Museum of Art

Partners, supporters underscore international importance

International partnerships have been fundamental to realizing Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa.” The exhibition includes major loans from the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research, Direction Nationale du Patrimoine Culturel, L’Institut des sciences humaines and the Musée National in Mali; the Ministry of Culture and Communication and Bank Al-Maghrib Museum in Morocco; and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria.

The exhibit has been made possible in part by two major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. It also is supported by the Buffett Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern. An anonymous donor made possible the exhibition’s travel to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and other venues. Additional support is provided by the Alumnae of Northwestern University, the Robert Lehman Foundation, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation and the Evanston Arts Council. 

Northwestern’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, founded in 1954 and today the largest separate Africana collection in existence, also will contribute a number of texts from and about Africa to the exhibition.

Published: November 15, 2018. Updated: September 26, 2019.

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