In Chicago on January 20th, 2019, the weather was a bone-chilling 13 degrees, with the wind-chill just below zero. However, Chicagoans bundled up in their winter gear of heavy coats, gloves, hats, scarves, earmuffs, and boots, to venture out to The Block Museum of Art for the opening of the exhibit – “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time; Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa.”
Walking through the doors of the museum immediately transported visitors to West Africa, in Mali, where the temperature this time of year would easily be 100 degrees! Opening celebrations included art, live West African music, and stories, for all ages. Renowned speakers conducted opening conversations about exhibit themes and examining what the trans-Saharan exchange from the past can tell about migration and movement, today. The real focus, though, was this amazing exhibit that is actually the first major exhibition that examines Saharan trade and the history shared by West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, from the eighth to sixteenth centuries.
You are first greeted and transported to the beautiful country of Africa by a giant wall sized projector screen, showing breathtaking video of the Saharan landscape, along with an opening reading that prepares your mind for the exhibit. One learns that they will start off by accompanying Mansa Musa, who was the king of the West African empire of Mali, and his pilgrimage to Mecca. His pilgrimage included 8,000 courtiers, 12,000 slaves, and 100 camels that EACH carried 300 pounds of gold! This medieval period starts with the spread of Islam in the 8th century and recedes with arrival of Europeans at the end of the 15th century. Gold, salt, and slaves were the driving force of this economy, as well as ceramics, copper, ivory, leather, glass beads and textiles. As exchange spread, so did cultural practices. You are then ready to explore and see what took the curators of this museum EIGHT YEARS to assemble!
More than 250 artworks and artifacts from medieval Africa are featured and many of them have never been seen in the U.S. his is because its rare for American art museums to work with African lenders. The loans required multiple visits to Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria. Visitors will see beautiful artifacts such as gold excavated from a Nigerian tomb, African ivory, and gold from shipwrecks. There are terra cotta figures from 12th/14th century Mali that were normally placed alongside the skeletons of horses and humans. The exhibit also holds talismanic textiles adorning the walls with Qur’anic passages and swords and blades from as far back as the 16th century are displayed with the quote from the “Book of Rates and Realms (1063)” that says: “When a king ascends the throne, he is handed a signet ring, a sword, and a copy of the Qur’an.”
Visitors are able to somewhat grasp how impactful the Sahara was as a center in the midst of the medieval world that goes from Asia to Europe and down to Nigeria, emphasizing how interconnected it all was. As your voyage through this rich time nears its end, you read information that tells of how slave trade began to dominate the Atlantic economy and the creation of new trade centers slowed the trans-Saharan trade, moving gold trade southward, where it contributed to the Asante Empire (in todays nation of Ghana). Even though the voyage at the museum ends, knowledge is forever gained.
The exhibit will be at The Block Museum of Art until July 21, 2019 before it travels to Toronto. The cost is FREE and that includes parking AND entry! The best thing about this exhibit is that it is just long enough to where the whole family, including small children, can enjoy it. Stop by and see this exhibit before it migrates onward.