Block Museum Receives Grant for Trans-Saharan Trade Exhibit

February 2, 2017

Northwestern’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art has received a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund a 2019 exhibit on the global history of trans-Saharan trade.

Challenging widely held notions of a timeless Africa cut off from the dynamics of world history, “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Trans-Saharan Exchange” will be the first major exhibition to assess the material culture of early trans-Saharan trade and to consider the role Africa played in medieval history.

“Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” will address 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 exhibit will be presented by the Block Museum in partnership with the Yale University Art Gallery and will run January through July 2019. The exhibit has been a long-term project for Kathleen Bickford Berzock, who joined the Block as associate director of curatorial affairs in 2014 after 18 years supervising the African art collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.