By Nii B. Andrews.
A new exhibition opened on Jan 26th at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. It documents Africa’s superlative contribution to medieval art.
Titled “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Sahara Africa”, the exhibit showcases 250 objects from four continents over a thousand years.
This is the first exhibition in recent memory to focus on the profound impact that pre-colonial African civilizations had on world history – an often neglected part of historical and specifically art historical discourse.
The thrust of the landmark exhibition is to reshape the narrative into one that projects a more inclusive global society through informed critical engagement, analysis and the availability of more accurate historical information.
And of course it debunks Hegel’s fallacious statement that prior to 19th century, Africa was “no historical part of the world”.
Several institutions have partnered to execute the project.
They include the Musée National and L’Institut des Sciences Humaines in Mali; the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria and historians, anthropologists and archeologists from Mali, Morocco and Nigeria.
Seated Figure, Possibily Ife, Tada Nigeria, Late 13th–14th century. Courtesy of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Block Museum.
The host institution is the Buffet Institute for Global Studies at Northwestern University.
Africa’s influence on the material culture and economics of the world pivoted on the Trans Sahara trade networks in the Far and Middle East and Europe.
Striking objects included in the exhibition provide tangible and irrefutable evidence for the above.
They include Qingbai ware ( 960 – 1300 CE) – Chinese porcelain unearthed in Mali documenting a 6000 mile wide trade zone.
Arabic texts written by Islamic scholars also document Mansa Musa’s epic journey to Mecca from 1324 to 1325 with a 15 000 strong contingent and enough gold to disrupt the world market.
Dr. Kathleen Berzock, the host museum’s associate director of curatorial affairs stated, “we have a unique opportunity to use art history to……..make visible the story of the thriving African cities and empires that are foundational to the global medieval world”.