“Caravans of Gold” exhibition presents first-of-its-kind look into medieval African art, trade

To many involved in the art world, notions of exhibitions featuring “the medieval period” may conjure images of Byzantine crosses encrusted with jewels, European saints and castles featured in Gothic paintings and a world untouched by the globalized trade of goods and ideas. But curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock intends to present a vastly different portrait of the medieval world.

In “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Arts, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa,” which will open at the Block Museum of Art this Saturday, Berzock weaves an artistic narrative of a wealthy African king, the journey of gold from West Africa to Florence, Italy and the expansion of Islamic culture and language.

“I’ve always been really interested in telling stories about the medieval history of Africa through its arts,” said Berzock, who is the associate director of curatorial affairs at the Block. “Now I’ve committed seven years to doing that. This exhibition shows that history requires active imagination. There are facts, but we also need to see that through mind’s eye. That’s what art and archeology contribute.”

Featuring over 250 artworks spanning more than five centuries and multiple continents, “Caravans of Gold” is the first major exhibition presenting art from the medieval period to demonstrate the global impact of Trans-Saharan trade and the shared history of West Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

The opening at the Block this Saturday will include remarks from Nigerian-born English Prof. Chris Abani, the host of BBC’s “Lost Kingdoms of Africa” Gus Casely-Hayford and Berzock. The exhibition will be at the Block through July 21 before traveling to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

Lindsay Bosch, the marketing and communications manager of the Block, said the key thesis of the exhibition is that the medieval world was much more interconnected, cosmopolitan and global than most people believe — and that Africa held a central place within that world.

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