Henry Ward Beecher, the nineteenth-century minister and social reformer, once proclaimed: “Were Africa and the Africans to sink tomorrow, how much poorer would the world be? [N]ot a poem, not an invention, not a piece of art would be missed from the world.” Beecher had clearly never seen the gold, filigreed beads or the terra cotta figurines from Bankoni now on display at the Block Museum but, more to the point, his remarks embodied a racist disregard that we’ve only now begun to deconstruct. The past few years have seen growing interest in medieval Africa from scholars based in North America and western Europe, partly to disassociate themselves from the far-right enthusiasm for a fictive medieval world populated exclusively by white Christians, partly in response to the growing consensus that medieval Europe was much more of a global backwater than previously thought. As Chaprukha Kusimba puts it, “People went to China, Baghdad, Isfahan, Cairo, Toledo, and so on for further education, as they do today in America.” You’d find a much more cosmopolitan world in Mali than France during the thirteenth century and, as another reviewer correctly notes, “‘Caravans of Gold’ forces Europe into a marginal role.” It’s a politically astute and historically accurate choice.
This exhibition is a landmark attempt to show the sophistication of medieval African art and to place the cultures of Saharan Africa in dialogue with medieval Europe. (I don’t mean to exaggerate its importance; medievalist colleagues quizzed me about the show when I traveled to Germany and the Czech Republic earlier this year, and essays from the catalogue have already appeared on syllabi around the globe.) A wide range of objects, from archaeological debris to astoundingly complex sculpture, persuasively shows that Saharan Africa bustled with creative and commercial energy. Pieces of Chinese pottery ended up there, while Parisian artists carved delicate Madonnas out of ivory sourced from African trade. The curators pack a good deal of erudition into the Block’s small galleries, framing the objects with a wealth of wall text and expert testimony. Some of the works, like the magnificently cast seated Ife figure, are obviously worth your time, but others require judicious interpretation.
Significantly, the show draws on African institutions. Some key works from western museums are on display—notably the famous “Asante Ewer” borrowed from the British Museum—but many of the loans come from places like the Musée national du Mali and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. Likewise, the catalogue, which packs a wealth of archaeological and art historical knowledge, features contributions from scholars working in African universities. While I can’t speak to just how these scholarly bridges were built, it’s vital that western museums offer African colleagues financial and logistical support as they draw increasingly on the resources and knowledge generated by African researchers.
In short, “Caravans of Gold” is a show that you really ought to see. The objects themselves make it worth a trip, but this is also a new, rigorous model for how to exhibit medieval African art. (Luke A. Fidler)
“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa” shows through July 21 at the Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. The exhibition catalogue was published in 2019 by The Block Museum and Princeton University Press.