A new exhibition at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, US displays the glorious period when the Sahara was the centre of world commerce, linking West Africa to Morocco and beyond. This information has been largely omitted by Western historians and today, few Africans are aware of their splendid past. Report by Juliet Highet.
The full title of this groundbreaking exhibition is: Caravans of Gold*, Fragments in Time, Culture & Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa. It’s an eye-opener because it challenges colonial and post-colonial stereotypes of a ‘timeless Africa’, both as a continent and specific locations perceived as cut off from the dynamics of international history.
This is the first major exhibition ever to capture the powerful impact of Saharan trade, offering strong evidence of the central, but little recognised or documented role that Africa played in global history from the 8th to the 16th centuries.
The show illuminates the people and goods that traversed that territory, from as far south as Nigeria, via notable cities such as Timbuktu, surrounded by gold and salt mines, and Fez, where the world’s oldest university was founded in the 9th century CE by a woman, to as far north as Tangier (founded in the 5th century BCE), which exported goods and slaves.
“It disrupts the usual colonial narrative that begins with the onset of the Black Atlantic Slave Trade,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr, host of a US TV series titled Africa’s Great Civilisations. “This cannot be pigeonholed as an African exhibition,” he continues. “It reaches across boundaries and conventional ideas about Africa, Islam and Medieval Europe.”
Central to Caravans of Gold is the innovative use of precious archaeological fragments, some minute in size, in the form of broken pieces of glazed and unglazed pottery, coloured shards of glass vessels, copper and ironwork, glass and semi-precious stone beads and extremely rare wisps of textiles.
The exhibition draws on recent archaeological discoveries, uncovering artefacts from major medieval African trading centres such as at Sijilmasa, a major Moroccan crossroads, and also from Gao and Tadmekka in Mali.
Caravans of Gold also exhibits stunning bronze and terracotta sculptures from Nigeria, some dating from as early as the 9th century. A powerful figure of a seated man, presumed to have been made at Ile Ife, ancestral home of the Yoruba people, but discovered at Tada, was cast in copper that was possibly mined in Western Europe, and then imported on a reverse trajectory along the Saharan routes, one of which was elegaically known as the Valley of the Kasbahs.
Ivory and glass beads, the latter produced in West Africa’s forest region, were also transported across the Sahara. Morocco became famous during this period (the 8th to the 16th centuries) for its glazed ceramics, gold coins and carved stucco architectural embellishments.
Precious manuscripts and irreplaceable terracotta sculptures of people from the Bankoni region of Mali, as well as delicate indigo-dyed cloths that are among Africa’s oldest surviving textiles, covetable jewellery and other luxury objects, all from Mali, make up a tapestry of sophisticated intercontinental history, previously hardly recognised or celebrated.
As Gates says about the show: “It foregrounds how recent scholarship is compiling these points of reference to build a fuller and more nuanced picture of the period [that] we’ve never had before.”
The exhibition presents more than 250 artworks and fragments that span six centuries and a vast geographical expanse. Treasures from institutions in West Africa, including a terracotta elephant head, reveal the sophistication of the art of the southernmost extent of the West African trade route.
From excavations at Sijilmasa, hoards of gold coins and gold jewellery have been discovered, including an exquisite gold ring displayed in the exhibition. Sijilmasa was one of the most important trade entrepôts on the northern edge of the Sahara, controlling the gold coming up from the south, primarily from Mali, and was also the hub of a thriving ceramics industry.
Established in the 8th century, during the golden age of Berber dynasties, Sijilmasa had a mosque, palace and barracks, armed to confront desert marauders. It was a lifeline for travellers arriving after their gruelling journey across the Sahara, aiming for its huge oasis, with its promise of extensive gardens irrigated by an intricate system, and hospitality provided by a sophisticated caravanserai. Its walled city ruins extend for five miles along the River Aziz. But Sijilmasa was destroyed by dissident Berbers in the early 19th century.
Timbuktu was famous for its gold mines – its name means ‘City of Gold’, and gold jewellers still thrive there today. Recently excavated fragments of fired clay moulds, used to cast blank gold coins for trans-Saharan trade, disprove common assumptions that West Africa was merely a trade route, rather than a hub of great economic wealth, commerce and production.
During the 14th century, the empire of Mali controlled access to one of the most productive gold regions ever known. In the exhibition, the Atlas of Maritime Charts (the Catalan Atlas), created circa 1375, on parchment mounted on six wooden panels, depicts its emperor, Mansa Musa, who travelled to Mecca wearing a golden crown, distributing gold wherever he went. He is still reputed to have been the richest man in history.
But not all was golden about this Saharan trade route. It conveyed salt in huge quantities, leather goods, ivory, and slaves – countless numbers of slaves. A section in Caravans of Gold called ‘Saharan Frontiers’ displays Gnaoua musical instruments. The Gnaoua people are descendants of enslaved West Africans now living in Morocco, presenting a fantastic annual music festival at Essaouria in their traditional dress, which this writer was fortunate to attend.
One may well ask – why has the African past prior to the Atlantic slave trade been largely omitted from world history? This exhibition overturns assumptions about African history and repositions states and peoples as not only embedded in, but also central to global networks of exchange. This information is largely omitted from international education systems, leaving our collective imagination deprived. Catherine Bickford Berzock, the exhibition curator, says: “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, Caravans of Gold has been conceived to shine a light on Africa’s pivotal role in world history through the tangible materials that remain.”
Few Africans, for that matter, are aware of the fact that at one stage, in the not-so-distant past, the continent was the centre of world trade.
Who should curate African art?
The movie Black Panther and protests at Brooklyn Museum in the US raise important questions for our time. In April last year, protesters demanded a decolonisation commission following criticisms levelled at the appointment of two white curators to the museum, including in the field of African arts.
Who should be responsible for teaching and curating African art? Although of course an American exhibition can’t answer these questions, it has started to address them by seven years of collaborative preparations with both African and Africanist curators, experts and specialists.
The exhibition and catalogue, the loans and associated events have emerged in partnership with institutions and specialists in Nigeria, Mali and Morocco. Yusuf Usman, former director general of the National Commission for Museums & Monuments in Nigeria that lent such iconic exhibits, and a contributor to the Caravans of Gold publication, believes this collaboration is an essential opportunity for museum visitors and also exhibition partners.
Another highly significant dilemma rears its head – should African art be repatriated to Africa? An exhibition such as Caravans of Gold does not attempt to answer this question. It’s true, of course, that the ‘collecting’ or theft of this African art, largely by the West, is directly associated with colonialism. What the show does do is focus on the history that predated both colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade, thus broadening the focus of enquiry into aspects of African history such as its magnificent and influential empires.
Yet another uncomfortable but salient question can’t be escaped. Apparently no material remains of the capture and enslavement of West Africans and their forced movement across the Sahara desert have been discovered, when this was economically a significant part of trans-Saharan trade in the medieval period. Even the word ’medieval’ has European connotations. But Arabic documents, some of which were salvaged from Timbuktu, do describe the earlier societies of this region and their trade.
For the Opening Programme, speakers included Ghanaian-British Gus Casely-Hayford, Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington DC, who devised and fronted a BBC TV series titled Lost Kingdoms of Africa. Speaking about Mali’s great empire and other great ancient African societies, he said: “History really matters. We have to discover African philosophy in perspectives of history, a narrative, a truly African voice after centuries of imposed histories.”
He was joined by Chris Abani, a Nigerian-born novelist, poet and winner of the 2009 Guggenheim Awards. Together with other speakers including the exhibition curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock, they discussed how trans-Saharan trade from the distant past could possibly relate to today’s migration across the region.
The Opening Programme also starred a contemporary master of the kora, a 21-string lute. It was played by Moneba Kouyate, who is a seventh-generation griot (Jeli), continuing the traditional Malian role of handing down the oral history and legends of Mali, and preserving the ongoing story. NA
*Caravans of gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa runs until 21 July at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, US.
After that, it travels to: The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada, from 21 September to 23 February, 2020. Then it continues at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC from 8 April to 29 November, 2020.