THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Ring excavated at Sijilmasa, Morocco, 9th/10th century. Gold, diameter 1.9 cm. Fondation nationale des musées du Royaume du Maroc, Rabat, 2006-1. Photograph by Abdallah Fili and Hafsa El Hassani.
As part of the first stop of a national tour, "Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa" is now on view at Northwestern’s Block Museum of Art. It brings much new research and over a decade of painstaking analysis together. This exhibition began while Block curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock was working at the Art Institute of Chicago.
At the start, it was thought that there were not enough artifacts available to create a full exhibition. Berzock worked closely with the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Gus Casely-Hayford, along with several scholars from West Africa to assemble pieces that have never before left their home countries. They are on loan from an impressive range of world museums, making this a collection of artifacts from West Africa that has never been seen before in one place.
For historians and anthropologists, the exhibition is an amazing feat. The challenge for Caravans is with engaging an audience that might not have the same historical perspective as a historian. The accompanying catalogue is a highly useful supplement for aiding a visitor’s understanding.
When the doors open into the entrance, light washes away a video projection of scenes from the Sahara. As the door closes, the scenes emerge again, putting the viewer in a desert setting at sunrise. The action is metaphorical and speaks to the theme of fragmentation and the fragility of things that have eroded over time.
Another theme of the exhibition is context. It is important to understand what the impact of the discovery of a one-inch piece of porcelain in an excavation is for archaeologists. The contextual aspect is a big hurdle for an exhibition like this because it relies on viewers diving into wall texts and video excerpts. The videos are not long, however, and capture the enthusiasm of the experts about their findings.
Seated Figure, Possibly Ife, Tada, Nigeria, Late 13th-14th century, Copper with traces of arsenic, lead, and tin, H. 54 cm. Image courtesy of National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria.
Visitors may be surprised by how little gold is on view in the exhibit. Trade commodities were not limited to gold but also included glass, porcelain, ivory and copper. Most of the gold that journeyed from West Africa was forged in the Sijilmasa mint. Sijilmasa, however, when excavated, did not have any gold remaining in it except a small child’s golden ring that was found in a closed-up hydraulic complex or public latrine.
So, where is all the gold? In 1992, a shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Devon, England. It carried around 400 gold coins. Coins in the medieval period aren’t used as currency the way we use them now. Glass beads, which are more readily found at excavation sites, were more widely and freely traded because they are easy to carry around. The gold coins and ingots from West Africa have for the most part been melted down and hammered into leaf and thread. It can be found in the gilding of European and Middle Eastern art and decorative objects.
The focus of this exhibit remains firmly set on Africa. Areas with walls painted a dark blue include examples of European and Middle Eastern works that are influenced by, or literally covered in, West African gold. The physical distance of the European art from the exhibit’s main pieces is important because, for too long, the history of African art has been filtered through the lens of European colonialism.
Trade routes went both ways, and at sites like Gao, copper objects and sculptures have been found that consist of copper from far-off regions. The seated figure found in Tada, Nigeria is cast in copper that was discovered, through isotopic analysis, to have originated in France. This figure is thought to be from Ile-Ife. The foundry at Ife and the surrounding area have been known for producing statues with extremely realistic features.
Small fragments of artifacts excavated from various sites accompany examples of similar pieces that are still whole in order to provide context. The process of excavation is one that deals in fragments. The process is a slow unfolding of questions and answers. For example, the gold ingot mold found at Tadmekka, upon first glance, looks like a rock. It took months of careful cleaning and research to discover the purpose of the small divots carved into the rock’s surface.
"Caravans of Gold" is the beginning of a new direction for historical research. After its stay at the Block Museum, the exhibition is travelling to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto this September and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. in 2020.
Museums and historical institutions cannot go back and reclaim the lost artifacts and hundreds of years of history manicured by colonialism. What they can do is devote time to focus on revisiting and uncovering clues to piece together the rich African history that has been purposefully neglected in Western museums and historical institutions.
"Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa." Jan. 26 through July 21, 2019, Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston, IL, 60208.
Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her B.F.A. from Pratt Institute and her M.F.A. in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. Her latest curatorial project is "The Feeling is Mutual."
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