Atlas of Maritime Charts (The Catalan Atlas) [detail of Mansa Musa], Abraham Cresque (1375) Mallorca; parchment mounted on six wood panels, illuminated (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

EVANSTON, Illinois — Can you picture the richest person ever in our collective recorded history? Would that picture change if you were told that he ruled the Empire of Mali in the 14th century? Might it change again if you were informed that he was a devout Muslim? These historical tidbits, I suspect, in the hands of another organization’s marketing team, might be widely advertised to bait potential visitors to the Block Museum’s current exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time. If they had held out Mansa Musa as the legendary sovereign of the stupendously wealthy Malian Empire in West Africa and broadcasted how he conquered 24 cities during his reign, the Block might have attracted curio-seekers who enjoy being regaled by tales of riches extravagantly displayed and spent. (Status envy is an itch that feels good to scratch though one always bleed at the end; think of how people love to hate-watch the Kardashians.)

In fact, by several historical accounts Mansa Musa was so wealthy that in the course of making his Hajj pilgrimage, with a retinue of tens of thousands attendants, musicians, slaves, soldiers, and heralds he gave away so much gold along the way that he destabilized the value of money in the Sahara region for more than a decade. This is the kind of information a show that aims to be a blockbuster would lead with.

Installation view of Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa (photo copyright @SeanSuPhoto | @PurplePhotoCo)

Installation view of Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa (photo copyright @SeanSuPhoto | @PurplePhotoCo)

But this information doesn’t appear in pamphlets, flyers, website banners and electronic notices sent out by the Block. I hear about it first from the exhibition curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock, perhaps several months ago when a contingent of Block staff made their way to New York City to hold a forum on the then planned exhibition. (Though they were not at all crass in their appeals for critical attention, they were avid heralds.) I hear about Mansa Musa again while I am at the Block for the gala opening, when I visit the nearby Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies — which, according to its chief curator, is said to be the largest collection of Africana in the world. This curator, Esmeralda Kale, talked about Mansa Musa as she walked us through the collection which includes an astounding array of objects and documents. (I was most amazed by the somewhat ad-hoc collection of celebratory and commemorative items that came in from all over the continent on the election of Barack Obama as the US president.) There is an intimation of the intellectual gravitas and integrity that Berzock brought to the project and that the entire Block team kept faith with in the ways they refused to market this show.

Tuareg camel saddle (tarik or tamzak), Algerian Sahara; leather, rawhide, wood, parchment or vellum, wool, silk, tin-plated metal, brass-plated metal, iron, copper alloy, cheetah skin, 75 x 71 x 46 cm; Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, gift of the Estate of Dr. Lloyd Cabot Briggs, 1975 (© President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology)

Instead the flyers and notices begin to intimate a sweeping historical recalibration that centers on the importance of 14th-century trade routes that crossed the Sahara Desert and drove the movement of people, goods, and culture. As one flyer exclaims: “Weaving stories about interconnected histories, the exhibition showcases objects and ideas that connected at the crossroads of the medieval Sahara and celebrates West Africa’s historic and underrecognized global significance.” This is ambitious. The show doesn’t aim for less than decentering the idea that the medieval epoch should only be envisioned through a European lens, which are typically stories of feudalism, war, chivalry, and the Bubonic plague. These European sagas are the ones I grew up with, saw dramatized on television, and valorized in film. Caravans of Gold also seeks to put Islam at this reconstructed world’s fulcrum and regard it as a force which impelled cultural advance, rather than to associate it with iconoclastic destruction of historical patrimony — stories we know too well. Even more, it subtly raises up the entire African continent, which becomes through this retelling, a force of profound socioeconomic change at the global level. As their handout highlights: “Journey to a medieval world with Africa at its center.”

Kneeling Figure, Natamatao, Mopti region
, Mali, Terracotta, (12th to 14th century) 46 cm x 22.3 cm x 21.5 cm, (courtesy Musée national du Mali; photograph by Seydou Camara, 90-25-10)

The essence of this story, as Berzock, writes in her introductory essay to the show’s catalogue, is that “Between the eight and the 16th century, an epoch that corresponds with the medieval period, the Saharan region was the site of world-shaping events.” To demonstrate this required a concerted effort of scholarship, transcultural conversation, and collaboration, and what Berzock, who took me along with a few writers on a walk through the show, described to us as an “archaeological imagination.” We soon grok what this is, as we talked through a wide array of fragments: glass beads, pottery, utensils, gold coins, ritual items, and jewelry. Plus, there are whole items: textiles, weaponry, religious figurines, manuscripts, and even tent poles. Partnering with institutions and researchers in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria was the only way that Berzock could, in the first instance, begin to understand the significance of scattered bits and pieces of commercially traded items left centuries ago in those once thriving cities and towns encompassed by the Saharan trade networks. Then through these partnerships Berzock and her team also established new intellectual trade routes by which the material heritage of these African nations were reconstituted in a foreign nation so that we might know how we ourselves have come to be.

Talismanic Textile, probably Senegal, (late 19th or early 20th century), four panels joined: cotton, plain weave; painted; amulets of animal hide and felt attached by knotted strips of leather, 255.2 cm x 178.8 cm, (courtesy Art Institute of Chicago 

The scope of this story is dizzying, particularly for me, since my sense of world geography was blighted from early on by a lackluster geography education in high school. Still, I find out that to the south these Saharan trade routes connected to the Niger river which fed down into contemporary Mali and then on into the forest region of West Africa, facilitating access to rich gold deposits in Bure and Bambuk. To the north trade routes connected to other exchange networks of the Mediterranean Sea and into the European mainland. To the east they intersected with the networks of the eastern Mediterranean and on through the Silk Roads of Central and East Asia. Indeed, at the entrance to the exhibition a banner proclaims that gold and salt, were commodities that underlay a burgeoning global economy. Salt was mined in the heart of the Sahara, and was the necessary pathway through to the gold reservoirs of Western Africa.

A selection of excavated finds from Essouk-Tadmekka, including fragments of glazed ceramics (among which is an oil lamp), stone beads and semi-precious stones, a cowrie shell, a fragment of silk textile, a carved stone torso, and vessel glass fragments from the Institut des sciences humaines, Mali (photograph by Clare Britt)

But how does this history become visible and legible? This is where the fragments come in. It requires that archaeological imagination to see through the fragments the greater story. Several vitrines containing shards of broken glass that are supposed to represent a particular kind of glazing technique or household vessel particular to Sijilmasa (in Morocco), Gao (Mali), or Tademekka (also Mali). They are collected and placed in regional and utilitarian genres. This organization begins to let the viewer see the lives of actual people, their religious practices and the goods that sometimes survived them. I remember the tent poles extravagantly carved with so much intricacy that I think that the makers forgot for a moment that the poles were only intended to anchor tents into the ground, provide movable shelter to prevent the wind and the sun from leaching life away. To paraphrase Chris Abani, the Nigerian novelist and poet, who was in attendance at the opening of the show: The story holds the fragments together and make them whole.

Tent poles, Tent poles, Wood, H 136.8 cm W 16.5 cm D 2.8 cm, (©The Field Museum, photograph by John Weinsteinimage No. A115335d_004A, Cat. No. 279194.1-.2)

In truth, this exhibition is not my favorite kind of display; much of it is sealed in vitrines, and the other parts require quite close attention to the historical eddies and flows of cultural ephemera. There are several maps on the walls, which do help to make sense of the multi-layered whirl of activity. But, in truth only after I returned to New York and took the time to sift through the materials, the images and the catalogue was I able to begin to understand the sweep of this show. While the text telescopes out to tell visitors in the gallery that the Saharan arena thrived because it had access to so much gold and to salt, it also telescopes in to show small bits and pieces (about 250 objects total) — not for me to mourn or even celebrate, but rather to understand the whole.

“Virgin and Child,” (ca. 1275–1300) France, ivory with paint, 14 1/2 × 6 1/2 × 5 in. (36.8 × 16.5 × 12.7 cm), (Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917)

Perhaps the most fascinating room for me is the small cupola that contains the part of the story in which ivory travels from up the Niger river from the south eventually making its way to Italian churches where the material is intricately carved into paeans to gods not imagined by Mensa Musa. This is the heart of the thing we call civilization: that we set in motion processes that are impelled by immediate need, but have deep ramifications for the future. An elephant’s tusk is sold; it is carved into the vignette of a story of redemption; it becomes a fetish; hundreds or thousands of elephants are killed to carve up their bodies and tell that (Christianized) story again.

What if we told stories founded in and dependent on mutual recognition? What if Islam was regarded as a seed and not a flower? What if the center of the world was Africa and its people were regarded as the richest the world has ever known? What if? What if the archaeological imagination pulled us all back from the precipice of amnesia?

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa continues at the Block Museum (on the campus of Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, Illinois) through July 21. It was curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...

5 replies on “In Centering West Africa, an Exhibition Tells Another Story of the Medieval Period”

  1. Really well written. I wish I could see this show! I especially love the questions at the end. “What if the archaeological imagination pulled us all back from the precipice of amnesia?”…What if…

    1. Good question. I think I was thinking that the story of the great supernatural redeemer is not only a Christian one, but predates the development of this religion and becomes Christianized under a certain set of historical circumstances. In going through this process, what might otherwise be a myth or legend takes on the force of a worldview.

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