I’ve been listening to “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend a lot since it came out a few days ago. The band’s first single in some six years calls back to some of their earlier influences, with clear hints of the Afrobeat sounds that defined its self-titled 2008 debut album. Revisiting the album in Pitchfork for its 10th anniversary last year, Fanta Sylla, the son of African music producer Ibrahimi Sylla, wrote, “Vampire Weekend invites a romanticizing of hybridity, the beauty of sharing sounds across international borders and bringing it to new audiences.”
It’s an apt backdrop for thinking about the Block Museum’s groundbreaking new exhibition, Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa. The show tells the story of medieval trans-Saharan trade by putting together “hints” in the form of artifact fragments, showing how cultures blended and interacted through monumental trade routes in Morocco, Mali and Nigeria.
Caravans of Gold is the first exhibition to chronicle such a massive history, and its curator, Kathleen Bickford Berzock, has been thinking about it for the last 15 years. She’s been planning and curating the show for the past seven, beginning when she still worked at the Art Institute. The Block received two significant grants for the project from the National Endowment for the Humanities: $60,000 for planning in 2016 and $350,000 for implementation in 2018. Being such a consequential exhibition, Caravans of Gold will travel to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum in September 2019 and the District of Columbia’s National Museum of African Art in April 2020.
So, going into the exhibition, I was worried about being let down. The Block had built a reputation for groundbreaking shows in the past few years with its retrospectives of William Blake and Charlotte Moorman and If You Remember, I’ll Remember, an exhibition in conversation with histories of oppression. And none of those shows received a six-figure implementation grant from a government agency.
I knew Caravans of Gold hit its mark when I walked past the tranquil video footage of the Sahara desert, through the doors of the exhibition proper and saw the gold. A case of Roman gold jewelry traded across the Sahara and another case of gold dinar coins showed viewers what they were in for — not an abundance of gold, but thoughtfully placed pieces in conversation to tell a story. Bickford Berzock says all the gold in this first room is thought to have been mined from West Africa as well, where the world’s best gold comes from. For an exhibition with gold in the title, Caravans lives up to its name remarkably.
It’s a treat to encounter more gold throughout the show, but the real power of Caravans comes in its thoughtful curation. After the first room of gold, viewers walk through a gate to see the first pieces from the exhibition’s three archaeological case studies: Tadmekka and Gao in Mali and Sijilmasa in Morocco. One of the smartest parts of the exhibition is its first set of “fragments in time” – a piece of Chinese silk and porcelain excavated from Tadmekka, placed alongside a full 12th century porcelain bowl from China. The placard tells viewers that the bowl is placed alongside the fragments to give an idea of what the piece of porcelain might’ve looked like. It’s the first demonstration of what makes this show special, but it’s also a great illustration of the consideration that went into curating Caravans of Gold.
Throughout the show, there’s truly something for every kind of viewer, with carefully curated, fascinating pieces. Viewers will see religious texts and ornaments, all kinds of jewelry, rare textiles, impressive weapons, massive sculptures and things I can’t quite categorize.
That begs the question, of course, of this being in an art museum. Caravans of Gold brings together topics of history, culture, geography, religion, politics and economics, but at The Block, it begs the viewer to see the story through the lens of art. It’s not just about the existence of the jewelry or the textiles – it’s about their aesthetics, the craft that went into creating them, the value embedded into them that made them so worth trading across the Sahara. That perspective centers such a wide-ranging exhibition.
I don’t want to spoil everything hidden in Caravans of Gold; like an archaeological dig, there should be some surprises. But, I’ll share a few more of the pieces throughout the show that amazed me. There’s the tall terracotta figures from 14th to 15th century Mali that ever-so-slightly call to mind Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. There’s the Nigerian copper figure looking into the room of ornate ivory religious sculptures traded to Europe. There’s the bronze elephant and stone hippo sculptures that made the child inside me smile. And there’s more gold jewelry, gold book pages and gold coins.
It’s important here to address a potential critique of the exhibition: A white institution collecting and displaying African artifacts seems pretty colonial and imperial, plus where did Caravans of Gold get all this stuff, anyway? Both The Block and Bickford Berzock stress the importance of the international advisory team for this show, which brought together scholars from the U.S. and Africa to plan every aspect of it. On top of that, it’s somewhat revolutionary that most of the pieces shown come from African institutions – it gets rid of that icky feeling of seeing that a piece was “donated” by a wealthy family or foundation. It also means that many of these pieces traveled to the U.S. for the first time, exclusively for Caravans of Gold.
The show ends, fittingly, with another case of gold dinars and jewelry, the motivating factor behind the whole thing. Leaving the exhibition, there are a few more cases meant to conclude the story with some more contemporary 19th and 20th century pieces. They didn’t add much to everything I’d just seen, except for a 20th century tent panel from Mali with a pattern that recalled some of the textile fragments I’d seen inside the show. As I left, it reiterated the resounding significance of these fragments.
Caravans of Gold is a true achievement for The Block. Curatorially, it paves new paths for working with archaeological pieces and African art. Historically, it tells a story that’s been ignored for so long, part of a larger narrative of African culture that doesn’t get enough attention as is. But most importantly, it’s an art experience that can truly satisfy any viewer: art fans, history buffs or anyone who’s ever just wondered where things come from. I even can’t wait to return and see what new things I notice the second time.
Reflecting on the exhibition, I can’t help but think about the refrain of “Harmony Hall”: “I don’t want to live like this, but I don’t want to die.” It seems applicable to Caravans of Gold, which breathed new life into artifacts and a story that otherwise might’ve died.