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Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

‘Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa’

“More than a century and a half before Columbus’s voyages, a Malian ruler named Abu Bakr II was said to have equipped an expedition involving two hundred ships that attempted to discover “the furthest limit of the Atlantic Ocean.” The expedition failed to return save for one vessel, whose survivor claimed that “there appeared in the open sea [as it were] a river with a powerful current…. The [other] ships went on ahead but when they reached that place they did not return and no more was seen of them.” Some modern historians (Michael Gomez, Toby Green, and John Thornton, among others) have interpreted this to mean that the Malian ships were caught in the Atlantic Ocean’s Canary Current, which sweeps everything in its path westward at about the same latitude as Mali,” writes Howard French.

“Abu Bakr II supposedly responded not by abandoning his dreams of exploration but by equipping a new and far larger expedition, this time involving two thousand ships and with himself in command. That was the last that was seen of him. We know of this story only because when Abu Bakr’s successor, Mansa Musa, was staying in Cairo in 1324–1325 on his pilgrimage to Mecca, the secretary of the chancery of the Mamluk Dynasty asked him how he had come to power and recorded his reply. There are no other traces of Abu Bakr’s attempt.

“The figure of Mansa Musa looms at the center of a major new exhibition, “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time,” that recently opened at the Block Museum of Art in Evanston, Illinois. Both the catalog’s cover and an interior page carry a vivid reproduction of the best-known panel of the Catalan Atlas, which bears an image of Musa seated on a golden throne, wearing a heavy golden crown, much in the manner of contemporaneous European royalty, holding a golden scepter in one hand and lofting a large ball of gold in the other, and seemingly greeting a camel-riding Berber dressed in green robes and a white turban (see illustration on page 47). The catalog makes the point, as does much recent writing on medieval Africa, that the Sahara has long been miscast as a barrier separating a notional black Africa from an equally notional white or Arab one. In reality, it argues, the desert has always been not just permeable but heavily trafficked, much like the ocean, with trade as well as religious and cultural influences traveling back and forth, and with world-shaping effects. Part of the difficulty in conveying the importance of this region’s history has been its paucity of documentation, and the exhibition and its catalog make up for this spectacularly with their display of the region’s legacy of artifacts, from pottery shards to sculpture and gold weights and coins.”


For more information, visit blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.

Category: Exhibition
The Block Museum of Art
40 Arts Circle Drive,
Evanston, IL