Author:Highet, Juliet

A new exhibition at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, US displays the glorious period when the Sahara was the centre of world commerce, linking West Africa to Morocco and beyond. This information has been largely omitted by Western historians and today, few Africans are aware of their splendid past. Report by Juliet Highet.

The full title of this groundbreaking exhibition is: Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, Culture & Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa. It's an eye-opener because it challenges colonial and post-colonial stereotypes of a 'timeless Africa', both as a continent and specific locations perceived as cut off from the dynamics of international history.

This is the first major exhibition ever to capture the powerful impact of Saharan trade, offering strong evidence of the central, but little recognised or documented role that Africa played in global history from the 8th to the 16th centuries.

The show illuminates the people and goods that traversed that territory, from as far south as Nigeria, via notable cities such as Timbuktu, surrounded by gold and salt mines, and Fez, where the world's oldest university was founded in the 9th century CE by a woman, to as far north as Tangier (founded in the 5th century BCE), which exported goods and slaves.

"It disrupts the usual colonial narrative that begins with the onset of the Black Atlantic Slave Trade," says Henry Louis Gates Jr, host of a US TV series titled Africa's Great Civilisations. "This cannot be pigeonholed as an African exhibition," he continues. "It reaches across boundaries and conventional ideas about Africa, Islam and Medieval Europe."

Central to Caravans of Gold is the innovative use of precious archaeological fragments, some minute in size, in the form of broken pieces of glazed and unglazed pottery, coloured shards of glass vessels, copper and ironwork, glass and semi-precious stone beads and extremely rare wisps of textiles.

The exhibition draws on recent archaeological discoveries, uncovering artefacts from major medieval African trading centres such as at Sijilmasa, a major Moroccan crossroads, and also from Gao and Tadmekka in Mali.

Caravans of Gold also exhibits stunning bronze and terracotta sculptures from Nigeria, some dating from as early as the 9th century. A powerful figure of a seated man, presumed to have been made at lie Ife, ancestral home of the Yoruba people, but discovered at Tada, was cast in copper that was possibly...

To continue reading