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Medieval Africa spotlighted in new exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum


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An often unheralded part of the medieval world will be the focus of a new exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada. Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time opens on September 21st, and will showcase dozens of fascinating pieces highlighting the African continent during the Middle Ages.

The exhibition was curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock and shown earlier this year at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. It examines the connections that Africa had with other parts of the medieval world through culture-changing ideas, much sought-after luxuries, and treasured commodities such as salt, ivory, and gold — a world-shaping story largely left out of history books.

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time features a cutting-edge curatorial approach that sets stunning masterpieces alongside recently unearthed archeological fragments, and includes many loans from the national collections of Mali, Nigeria, and Morocco. This juxtaposition reveals how deeply connected medieval Africa was to a wide swathe of the world, influencing art and culture across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Some of the items on display came to Africa from as far as way northern Europe and China, such as the Asante Jug, which was manufactured in England at the end of the fourteenth-century but was brought to Ghana. Meanwhile, the figure of a bowman made in Nigeria during the fourteenth or fifteenth century, includes cowrie shells as ornaments – the shells having been sourced from the Indian Ocean.

The exhibition also highlights the legendary medieval figure, Mansa Musa, 14th-century ruler of the West African empire of Mali — thought to be the one of the wealthiest people of all time. Mansa Musa’s astounding gold riches were famed, with accounts suggesting that the value of gold dropped because of his extravagant spending during his pilgrimage to Mecca.


Medieval African jewellery – photo courtesy Aga Khan Museum

“With this exhibition we’re upending common misperceptions and filling in areas of world history that have been overlooked,” says Henry Kim, Director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum. “Our hope is that our programming can contribute to critical conversations in Canada that expand our understanding of the past, helping to bridge cultures today and tomorrow.”

A number of special events will take place during this exhibition, which runs to February 23, 2020. They include talks on:

“Telling the Story of Medieval Africa: Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” with Kathleen Bickford Berzock – September 22, 2019

“Ivory and Gold: Islamic Spain and the Trans-Saharan Trade” with Mariam Rosser-Owen – November 14, 2019

“Trade Networks and Empires: African Art’s Many Golden Ages” with Augustus Casely-Hayford – December 1, 2019

To learn more about this exhibition, please visit the Aga Khan Museum website.


Photo courtesy Aga Khan Museum

Top Image: Dating to the 14th or 15th century, this figure of a bowman was discovered on Jebbe Island in Nigeria. The figure includes a large medallion, necklaces, armlets, and anklets strung with cowrie shells – an item which was sourced from the Indian Ocean.

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