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

January 26, 2019 - July 21, 2019
Main Gallery

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

قوافل من ذهب، شذرات من التاريخ: فن، ثقافة، وتبادل عبر الصحراء الكبرى خلال القرون الوسطى


Journey to a medieval world with Africa at its center.

Travel with the Block Museum along routes crossing the Sahara Desert to a time when West African gold fueled expansive trade and drove the movement of people, culture, and religious beliefs.

Caravans of Gold is the first major exhibition addressing the scope of Saharan trade and the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe from the eighth to sixteenth centuries. Weaving stories about interconnected histories, the exhibition showcases the objects and ideas that connected at the crossroads of the medieval Sahara and celebrates West Africa’s historic and underrecognized global significance.

Caravans of Gold draws on recent archaeological discoveries, including rare fragments from major medieval African trading centers like Sijilmasa, Gao, and Tadmekka. These “fragments in time” are seen alongside works of art that invite us to imagine them as they once were. They are the starting point for a new understanding of the medieval past and for seeing the present in a new light.

Presenting more than 250 artworks spanning five centuries and a vast geographic expanse, the exhibition features unprecedented loans from partner institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, many of which will be seen in North America for the first time.

The Block Museum exhibition will travel to The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (Sept. 21, 2019 – Feb. 23, 2020) and then to the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institute (April 8 – Nov. 29, 2020)




Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time:

Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa

The Block Museum and Princeton University Press

Hardcover | 2019 | $65.00 | ISBN 9780691182681 | 304 pp. | 9 x 11 | 192 color illus.

screen-shot-2018-12-05-at-10.07.48-am.pngThe Sahara Desert was a thriving crossroads of exchange for West Africa, North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe in the medieval period. Fueling this exchange was West African gold, prized for its purity and used for minting currencies and adorning luxury objects such as jewelry, textiles, and religious objects. The publication Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time draws on the latest archaeological discoveries and art historical research to construct a compelling look at medieval trans-Saharan exchange and its legacy. Contributors from diverse disciplines present case studies that form a rich portrayal of a distant time.

Featuring a wealth of color images, this fascinating book demonstrates how the rootedness of place, culture, and tradition is closely tied to the circulation of people, objects, and ideas. These “fragments in time” offer irrefutable evidence of the key role that Africa played in medieval history and promote a new understanding of the past and the present.

AVAILABLE JANUARY 2019: Purchase at The Block Museum or online at www.


Caravans of Gold - Opening Celebration - Saturday, January 26, 2019

Caravans and Crossroads: Art, Music, and Stories
Open house throughout The Block, 10:30 AM – 1 PM

Drop by the Block for an all-ages celebration inspired by Caravans of Gold and be among the first to explore the exhibition. Join Chicago artist Rhonda Wheatley in a hands-on activity exploring the powerful stories that objects tell. Experience live West African music and DJ sets throughout the museum featuring special guest, seventh-generation Jeli (griot) Morikeba Kouyate. A master of the kora, Kouyate translates the oral history and legends from medieval West Africa to the present day.

Opening Conversation: Caravans of Gold
Pick Staiger Concert Hall, 2 PM

“Africa is forcing those who will listen to reconsider the continent.” - Gus Casely-Hayford

Renowned speakers include Chris Abani, Nigerian-born novelist, poet, and essayist and winner of 2009 Guggenheim Award; Gus Casely-Hayford, Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C, and host of the BBC’s Lost Kingdoms of Africa. They will be joined by Caravans of Gold curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock, the Block’s Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs and former curator of African Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. Taking up themes from the exhibition, this panel will consider the relationships between history, power, and imagination, and ask what trans-Saharan exchange from the distant past can tell us about movement and migration today. Jonathan Holloway, Provost of Northwestern University and Professor of History and African American Studies, and Annelise Riles, Executive Director of the Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies and Associate Provost for Global Affairs will provide welcoming remarks.


This program is generously supported by The Alumnae of Northwestern University.


Caravans of Gold, Fragments of Time is curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Block Museum. 

The exhibition has benefitted particularly from the partnership of the following institutions: in Mali, the Direction Nationale du Patrimoine Culturel, Institut des Hautes Études et des Rescherches Islamiques Ahmed Baba, the Institut des Sciences Humaines, and the Musée National du Mali; In Morocco, the Fondation Nationale des Musées, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, Royaume du Maroc, and the Musée Bank al-Maghrib; and in Nigeria, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. In addition, the following scholars have served as key advisors through the development of the exhibition: Abdallah Fili, Mamadou Cissé, Mamadi Dembele, Sarah Guérin, Ron Messier, Sam Nixon, and Ray Silverman. They have been joined by Northwestern University faculty and staff including Esmeralda Kale, Alexandria Kotoch, Christina Normore, Rachael Reidl, Zekeria Salem, Amy Settegren, Rebecca Shereikis, and Marc Walton.

Caravans of Gold, Fragments of Time has been made possible in part by two major planning and implementation grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. Caravans of Gold is also generously supported in part by Northwestern University's Buffett Institute for Global Studies. An anonymous donor has made possible the exhibition’s travel to the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Myers Foundations, the Alumnae of Northwestern University, the Robert Lehman Foundation, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council Agency, and the Evanston Arts Council, an agency supported by the City of Evanston. Special thanks to Perucca Family Foundation and the Art Institute of Chicago for curatorial research support.

The related publication is supported in part by Northwestern University's Office for Research, Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a gift from Liz Warnock to the Department of Art History at Northwestern University, and the Sandra L. Riggs Publications Fund at the Block Museum of Art.

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Personal Passages: African Filmmakers in Europe

Soleil Ô (1970)

Thursday, February 7, 7 PM



Personal Passages: African Filmmakers in Europe

An Opera of the World (2017)

Wednesday, February 6, 7 PM



Counter-Histories with Michael Rakowitz

Wednesday, February 13, 6 PM


Panel and Conversation

Nations of Migrants

Thursday, February 28, 6 PM


Gallery Talk

Research at the Crossroads: Inside the Exhibition Caravans of Gold

Wednesday, March 6, 6 PM



Personal Passages: African Filmmakers in Europe

Brûle la Mer (Burn the Sea) (2014)

Thursday, March 14, 7 PM


Poetry Workshop

Migration, Fragmentation, and Translation

Wednesday, March 30, 5:30 PM



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