The Block Announces NEH Support for 2019 Exhibition on the Global History of Trans-Saharan Trade

A major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has been awarded to the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University to fund research and development for a groundbreaking exhibit on the global history of trans-Saharan trade.

Scheduled to open in 2019, “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Trans-Saharan Exchange” [working title] challenges the widely held bias of a timeless Africa that is cut off from the dynamics of world history. This will be the first major exhibition to take stock of the material culture of early trans-Saharan trade and to offer strong evidence of the central but little recognized role that Africa played in medieval history. Among the diverse materials featured in the exhibition will be sculpture and luxury objects in terracotta and ivory, gold and bronze metalwork, and manuscripts from West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, and Europe. What will unite these materials will be their connections to routes of exchange across the Sahara Desert in the Medieval period (8th – 16th century).

“These ‘fragments in time’ offer irrefutable evidence of the key role that Africa played in medieval history – a history that conventionally situates Europe at the center of the world – promoting a critical revision of our understanding of the past and the present.”
—Dr. Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs, Block Museum of Art

The $60,000 Block award is among $79 million in NEH grants offered to 290 humanities projects and programs across the United States. The Block Museum is one of only 15 national museums this grant cycle to receive exhibition-planning support. The NEH focuses its financial support on exhibitions that deepen public understanding of significant humanities ideas and topics.

“As a teaching and learning museum, the Block is dedicated to presenting exhibitions that invite the broad public to consider issues pertinent to contemporary humanities and inspire them to connect art with issues that matter today,” notes Lisa Corrin, the Block Museum’s Ellen Philips Katz director. “We are grateful to the NEH for their support in advancing a body of scholarship that places Africa at the center of a global historical narrative and reintroduces American audiences to Africa’s vital presence in world history.”

“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” addresses the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe during the critical epoch of the 8th through 16th centuries, when West African gold fueled a global economy and was the impetus for the movement of things, people and ideas across the Sahara Desert to Europe, the Middle East and beyond. Because of the scarcity of surviving intact works from before the 16th century, the early history and material culture of Africa have rarely been the focus of major exhibitions.

More than 100 assembled artworks and archeological fragments will help audiences discover the far-reaching impact of historic trans-Saharan exchange and the overlooked role of West Africa at the forefront of these developments. Using objects as points of entry and inquiry, “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” will interweave the art history, archaeology, history and comparative literature of trans-Saharan trade, situating it within a broad geographical and historical context.

fragments
Archaeological fragments of imported trade goods excavated from the ruins of Tadmekka, an early Islamic trading Center in northern Mali. (Image Copyright Sam Nixon)

“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” addresses the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe during the critical epoch of the 8th through 16th centuries, when West African gold fueled a global economy and was the impetus for the movement of things, people and ideas across the Sahara Desert to Europe, the Middle East and beyond. Because of the scarcity of surviving intact works from before the 16th century, the early history and material culture of Africa have rarely been the focus of major exhibitions.

More than 100 assembled artworks and archeological fragments will help audiences discover the far-reaching impact of historic trans-Saharan exchange and the overlooked role of West Africa at the forefront of these developments. Using objects as points of entry and inquiry, “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” will interweave the art history, archaeology, history and comparative literature of trans-Saharan trade, situating it within a broad geographical and historical context.

The exhibition will be developed with guidance from a multidisciplinary and international advisory group and will be accompanied by a scholarly catalogue that shares emerging research and analysis. “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” will be presented by the Block Museum of Art in partnership with the Yale University Art Gallery.

“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” has been a long-term project for Kathleen Bickford Berzock, who joined the Block Museum as associate director of curatorial affairs in 2014, after 18 years of guiding the development and display of the African art collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Dr. Berzock’s work on this groundbreaking exhibition reflects Northwestern’s longstanding commitment to African Studies and to the development of new ways of thinking about Africa in the world,” Corrin notes. “These include the Program of African Studies, the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa, Middle East and North African Studies and the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies.”

As a traveling exhibition, scholarly catalogue and series of public engagement programs, “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” will run January through July 2019 at the Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston.

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Top Image: Image 1: View across the Essouk valley in northern Mali, where the ruins of the early Islamic trading centre of Tadmekka are located. (Image: Sam Nixon)

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