From 1323 to 1325, the Muslim leader voyaged from Timbuktu to Mecca on the hajj, setting out with a convoy of 15,000 subjects. According to contemporary accounts, the caravan was as long as the eye could see. Along the journey, the emperor lavished gifts of gold on everyone he met, strategically establishing key diplomatic relationships. Reports of Mansā Mūsā’s fantastic wealth made their way to Europe, and Mansā Mūsā and the Mali kingdom were quite literally put on the map in 1339. Algerian scholar Tahar Abbou writes that among the consequences of the Mansā’s journey was that it “stirred the European ambitions” to explore Africa in search of the Mansā’s gold source, bypassing the North African merchants who had previously acted as middlemen in the trans-Saharan trade.
Because of Mansā Mūsā’s influence, in its golden age, Timbuktu was renowned as one of the world’s major centers of knowledge, trade, and Islamic culture. Most of the surviving texts from which we learn of Mansā Mūsā’s exploits, and the histories of the trans-Saharan trade, are in Arabic, largely written by Islamic merchants and scholars. “We want people to also think about who wrote that story, and what other ways there are to tell the story,” Lisa Corrin, the director of the Block Museum, told Artsy. Berzock agrees: “These ‘fragments in time’ are key to conjuring a new vision of the past,” she said. “We have a unique opportunity to use art history to contextualize these fragments and to use the special context of the museum to make visible the story of the thriving African cities and empires that were foundational to the global medieval world.”
Amid tense calls from contemporary African leaders for Western museums to return looted artifacts, the Block Museum chose to collaborate with African institutions like the Musée National and L’Institut des Sciences Humaines in Mali and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria. Their efforts brought an unprecedented trove of items as-yet unseen outside of Africa to the exhibition. Highlights range from a delicate, indigo-dyed woven fabric thought to be among the oldest existing African textiles, to terracotta and bronze sculptures predating the famed Benin bronzes.
“Caravans of Gold” is the first exhibition in recent memory to apply a wide lens to the pre-colonial period of African civilizations and their impact to effectively challenge what we think we know about the world. It’s a fallacious notion that Africa is without history, one that ultimately fuels the racialized subjugation and exploitation of people of African descent around the globe. The museum’s decision to present fragments is a novel one; it requires the viewer to make inferences and employ reasoning in a way that the standard, tacit relationship between a viewer and an art object typically does not. As we move forward in our efforts to transform narrative cycles that do not reflect who we want to be as a global society, this juxtaposition of fragments can be instructive: Nothing, history included, is ever totally complete. Understanding expands and contracts based on what details are placed in dialogue together, and fragments present an opportunity for robust critical engagement, analysis, and—most importantly—to stoke the imagination.