US exhibit portrays Africa’s interconnected medieval past

Updated January 27, 2019

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Evanston (Illinois, US): Paintings on panels titled ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ and ‘The Crucifixion’ are displayed at the exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa on Saturday.—AFP
Evanston (Illinois, US): Paintings on panels titled ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ and ‘The Crucifixion’ are displayed at the exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa on Saturday.—AFP

A FIRST-OF-ITS kind exhibition opened on Saturday at a Chicago museum challenging long-held views of the Middle Ages, exhibiting African artefacts that place the continent at the centre of global trade and culture. The travelling exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time debuts at the Block Museum on the Chicago campus of Northwestern University, before travelling to other North American museums. The exhibit showcases more than 250 items, including many rare and precious artefacts on loan from West African institutions in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria, and travelling for the first time outside of their home countries.

The aim is to showcase what scholars have known for some time — that Africa was part of an interconnected world in the Middle Ages that brought wealth to the continent, and spread cultural and religious practices far and wide. Africa “was definitely an economic engine” during the Middle Ages, said the Block Museum’s Kathleen Berzock, who spent seven years curating the exhibit. Organisers said the exhibit was the first time that a US museum had partnered with African counterparts to challenge notions of the continent isolated from the rest of the world during the eighth through sixteenth centuries.

On display are artefacts that show evidence of global economic trade in African goods and materials, with emphasis on the role of West African gold. These include rare fragmentary artefacts discovered at Saharan archaeological sites, as well as African sculptures made of French copper, European religious artefacts made of African ivory, and other pieces of gold, ceramic, glass and textile. The objects tell a pre-slavery, pre-colonial narrative largely left out of history books and school classrooms, organisers said. The exhibit comes at a sensitive time in the art world, as important questions are being asked about repatriation of African art taken to Western countries during the colonial era. A study commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in November 2018 recommended returning African treasures held by French museums — a radical policy shift that could put pressure on other former colonial powers.

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2019