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Opening day celebration for ‘Caravans of Gold’ sets attendance record

Groundbreaking exhibition uses fragments to bring Africa’s distant past into focus

Saturday’s frozen temperatures and falling snow didn’t deter an estimated 2,500 visitors from attending the opening day celebration of “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa,” making it the biggest opening day turnout to date for Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art.

The groundbreaking exhibition was curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the museum’s associate director of curatorial affairs in partnership with museums in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria, and in collaboration with a core of interdisciplinary scholars.

A capacity crowd of 1,000 filled every seat in the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, including dozens of African dignitaries wearing jewel-toned tunics and headwraps for the celebratory occasion.

Providing contextual remarks for how an exhibition like “Caravans of Gold” could only have sprung out of a research university art museum like The Block were Lisa Corrin, The Block Museum’s Ellen Phillips Katz Director, Provost Jonathan Holloway and Buffett Institute Executive Director Annelise Riles.

In her welcome, Corrin, emphasized “Caravans of Gold” as a profound act of activism. “‘Caravans’ is about changing the story, so that we can change history and the future,” she said.

Holloway, a professor of history and African American studies, summed up the exhibition as “magnificent, beautiful, impressive and also important.”

Quoting Countee Cullen’s poem “Heritage,” Holloway cited the need for people of African descent to understand what shapes them.

“One three centuries removed
From the scenes his father loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?”

“With ‘Caravans’ we are being told something different about Africa from empires to economies. We already knew it was a land of wealth, but we can now bear witness to intellectual wealth as well. And it is desperately important, especially in these fractious days, that we listen,” Holloway said.

Riles lauded “the tireless risk-takers of The Block, Mali, Morocco and Nigeria, for embodying the process of building committed, equal relationships across countries, and overcoming many obstacles to forge global partnerships that are the next step in transforming the world to one that is more just with sustainable peace.”

Mlondolozi Zondi and Mariam Taher, Northwestern Ph.D. candidates recited from 12th century texts in English and Arabic that bore witness to the splendors of King Mansa Musa’s court.

Curator Berzock took the audience on the journey that shaped the innovative exhibition approach to “Caravans of Gold.” 

Berzock explained that although ample evidence of Medieval Africa’s powerful trade system and economic and intellectual capital existed in the form of 12th- century texts and the famous 14th-century Catalan atlas, Western scholars had long dismissed these records as being embellished.

However, when archeological excavations in trade cities like Tadmekka, Sijilmasa and Gao unearthed medieval gold jewelry, coin molds and fragments of luxury items with a provenance from the farthest ends of Africa’s trade routes, the idea of harnessing the “archeological imagination” began to take hold as a way to give shape to the exhibition. 

By juxtaposing archeological fragments with beautiful intact examples of similar lusterware, copper, terracotta and ivory sculptures, gold jewelry, panel paintings and sacred texts, “exhibition visitors are able to see the past in their mind’s eye in new ways,” Berzock said.

Artwork pairings that showcase the mutual trade between Africa, Europe, China and the Middle East -- such as the exquisite example of a bronze seated figure made in Tada along the Niger River -- is positioned to gaze into the exhibition’s ivory room, where French copper mined in the Alps was traded for African elephant tusks for a sculpture of the Madonna and Child carved in medieval France.

Not only are these symbols of material wealth on view, but also Africa’s intellectual wealth in the form of scholarly texts from Timbuktu’s great university libraries. These treasured cultural patrimony items survive while countless perishable materials of paper, cloth and leather have been destroyed by time and climate, as well as Boko Haram’s 2013 effort to burn and destroy architecture and cultural heritage items in Mali.

Visiting the exhibition on opening day was Emilie Songolo, senior librarian for African, Global and Francophone studies and social sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Most times when I visit exhibitions about Africa and Islam, including two recent shows I took in while in Paris, I walk away with more questions about the narrative than answers. But today after experiencing this exhibition, I immediately contacted our university to order copies of the ‘Caravans of Gold’ catalogue for our library.”

 Special guest Gus Casely-Hayford, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and host of the BBC’s “Lost Kingdoms of Africa,” provided context for Africa’s immensity, diversity and centrality to human history and progress.

“Covering 11 million square miles, the continent of Africa is larger than China, Europe and the U.S. combined. And yet, this crucible of humankind sits on the periphery of human knowledge,” Casely-Hayford said.

Connecting the great potential of Africa’s future as a great global engine with precious resources, a growing population and economy, to the evidence of Africa’s global past, Casely-Hayford underscored the short-sightedness of teaching our children so little about Africa.

“We should do it because it’s the right thing to do: to learn more and listen more.”

Gus Casley Hayford Chris Abani Kathleen BerzockWEBGus Casely-Hayford, Chris Abani and Kathleen Bickford Berzock at the opening celebration for 'Caravans of Gold.'
Photo by Sean Su.

Chris Abani, professor of English at Northwestern, conversed with Berzock and Casely-Hayford about how the exhibition can help to fill in Africa’s missing narrative. Abani, who was born near Igbo in Nigeria, described his experience seeing the medieval bronze sculptures in “Caravans of Gold” that he never saw while growing up, and how it manifested as an awareness of what had been missing. “I was literally in tears to see something so close that shapes my lineage,” Abani said.

Casely-Hayford, who was raised in London to parents born in Ghana, spoke about a career spent fighting to make space in museums he could feel comfortable in.

“The history is inadequate. The intellectual rigor it is based on is a pretty bad accident,” Casely-Hayford said. “When we can see the culture that is ours, and that of our antecedents that were there while Europe was in the dark ages, it gives a power and confidence that our culture would deny.”

Berzock spoke about looking for a museum space to present an exhibition of pre-Colonial Africa and being told it was a history that couldn’t be presented because there wasn’t enough of it left. “That’s a really bad answer,” Berzock said.

“I wanted to push the envelope of what a museum exhibition is and to create an exhibition that people can touch and be in the presence of so we can embody the past.”

“Caravans of Gold” runs through July 21 at The Block Museum of Art, before traveling to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institute.