Africa’s Overlooked Role
in Medieval Art History

Dromedary camels, loaded with slabs of salt, on caravan route, Timbuktu, Mali, 1971.

Dromedary camels, loaded with slabs of salt, on caravan route, Timbuktu, Mali, 1971.
West African cultures had an unexpected and extensive influence on Medieval Europe.

West African cultures had an unexpected and extensive influence on Medieval Europe.

Sam Nixon

A selection of excavated finds from Essouk-Tadmekka, including fragments of glazed ceramics (among which is an oil lamp), stone beads and semi-precious stones, Mali. 

“You start realizing they excavated a fragment of porcelain from China, glassware from Syria and Egypt, and terracotta from all over this expansive interregional network. So that’s when I started putting together this bigger narrative.”

Kathleen Bickford Berzock

In 1324, the West African king Mansā Mūsā embarked on a pilgrimage from his empire of Mali to Mecca. His year-long Hajj journey is legendary for its sheer decadence and unapologetic display of wealth: accompanying his parade of 8,000 courtiers and 12,000 slaves were 100 camels, each laden with as much as 300 pounds of pure gold. When he passed through Cairo, Mūsā apparently gave local royal officials so much gold he depreciated its value in Egypt.

Mūsā’s renown is evident in the exquisite Catalan Atlas, a six-panel, fourteenth-century map detailing medieval trade and seafaring routes. A prominent portrait shows him wearing a golden crown and holding a golden orb; the accompanying caption reads, in part, “This king is the richest and most distinguished ruler of this whole region on account of the great quantity of gold that is found in his lands.”

Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917, 17.190.295

Virgin and Child, ca. 1275–1300, France, Ivory with paint.

This small image is a trace of a vital pre-colonial narrative that’s largely been forgotten overtime—that medieval West Africa had a global reputation as a region of considerable wealth and played a significant role in shaping economies and cultural production overseas for centuries. This notion, according to Kathleen Bickford Berzock, Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs at the Block Museum of Art, is “a revelation to people. That the medieval period is European history, or that Africa was isolated and disconnected from global economies and trends before European contact—those are really resilient but misguided ideas.”

Berzock has spent the last seven years organizing a monumental show highlighting West Africa’s medieval cultural past, specifically between the eighth and 16th centuries. The exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa represented the first major museum exhibition of its kind, bringing together material remnants of this influential trade and medieval artworks from three continents. Many objects illustrated the high technical skills of African artisans, such as a cast bronze elephant from Nigeria and rare pieces of gold jewelry excavated from across the Sahara. The exhibition later traveled to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

It’s an unfortunate and pervasive stereotype that the Sahara is an empty expanse, too harsh for life to thrive. Far from desolate, the world’s largest subtropical desert was rife with movement during the medieval era, with different ethnic groups communicating through the common tongue of Arabic. Camel caravans traveled great miles while carrying goods like glass, copper, brass, and pottery, enduring sandstorms and water shortages along the way. Merchants passed through busy trading centers like Gao and Tadmekka in Mali and Sijilmasa in Morocco; they also filled up boats that were sent along the Niger River.

These trans-Saharan routes were largely driven by the value of pure gold from deposits in the historic region of Western Sudan—encompassing the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. With demand for the precious material coming from distant lands, these complex crisscrosses fueled a global economy. They reached as far as the Mediterranean Sea and Levantine routes, ultimately connecting with the ancient Silk Road. On return routes to Africa, goods like cowrie shells moved south from the Indian Ocean and glass beads came from the Mediterranean. One rare artifact on display that exemplifies the scope of this network was a small, celadon-glazed porcelain fragment. Found in Tadmekka, it was originally part of a Song Dynasty bowl produced in the southeastern Chinese province of Jiangxi.

Sam Nixon

Looking down into an excavation unit in Tadmekka, Mali, from the surface; the image shows digging at depth of approximately 5 meters at the depth of the earliest walls recorded. 

Atlas of Maritime Charts
Bibliothèque nationale de France

Atlas of Maritime Charts (The Catalan Atlas) [detail of Mansa Musa], Abraham Cresque (1325–1387), 1375, Mallorca. Parchment mounted on six wood panels, illuminated.

Excavations within the Sijilmasa mosque
MAPS, 1996

Excavations within the Sijilmasa, Morocco, mosque, with exposed walls from the “Filalian” period.

Muhammad al-Kaˉbarıˉ
Clare Britt, Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, Paden 161.

Muhammad al-Kaˉbarıˉ, Garden of the Useful and Beneficent Mali, probably 19th century. Ink on paper.

Ahmad Baˉbaˉ al-Tinbuktıˉ
Clare Britt, Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, Northwestern University Library, Hunwick 541.

Ahmad Baˉbaˉ al-Tinbuktıˉ, as dictated to Yuˉsuf al-Isıˉ, The Uttermost Hope in the Preference of Sincere Intention over Action, Timbuktu, Mali, 1592. Ink on paper.

Gold jewelry from tumulus 7
René Müller, National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria.

Gold jewelry found at tumulus [burial mound] 7, Durbi Takusheyi, Nigeria, 13th-15th century.

Dinar of al-Mustans ̇ir Billaˉh
Fouad Mahdaoui, Bank al-Maghrib, Rabat, Morocco, 521508. 

Dinar of al-Mustans ̇ir Billaˉh (r. 1036–1094 ce), issued AH 461, struck at Mis ̇r (Cairo). Gold, diameter 22 mm.

Horseman and Four Figures, Region of Bankoni, Mali, Terracotta
Art Institute of Chicago

Horseman and Four Figures, Region of Bankoni, Mali, Terracotta, 13th/16th century (based on Thermoluminescence testing).

Biconical bead
The Aga Khan Museum, AKM618

Biconical bead, Egypt or Syria, 10th -11th century, Gold: filigree, granulation, "rope" wire.

Bowl, Egypt, 11th century
The Aga Khan Museum, AKM684

Bowl, Egypt, 11th century, Fritware, lustre-painted.

Tuareg camel saddle
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, gift of the Estate of Dr. Lloyd Cabot Briggs, 1975, 975-32-50/11927
© President and Fellows of Harvard College, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Tuareg camel saddle (tarik or tamzak), Algerian Sahara. Leather, rawhide, wood, parchment or vellum, wool, silk, tin-plated metal, brass-plated metal, iron, copper alloy, cheetah skin.

Gold Jewelry Ornaments
Franko Khoury, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Roy and Brigitta Mitchell Collection.

Gold Jewelry Ornaments, Tukulor artist, Mauritania, Late-early 20th century. Gold alloy.

Ivory Casket
Art Institute of Chicago, Samuel P. Avery Endowment (1926.389) / Art Resource, NY

Ivory Casket. Italy (Sicily), 12th century. Ivory, brass, tempera, gold leaf.

Tent poles
John Weinstein, ©The Field Museum

Wooden tent poles.

Elephant head
Image courtesy of National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria.

Elephant head, Ife, Lafogido, Nigeria, 12th-15th century, Terracotta.

Seated Figure
Image courtesy of National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abuja, Nigeria. 

Seated Figure, Possibly Ife, Tada, Nigeria, Late 13th-14th century, Copper with traces of arsenic, lead, and tin.

Kneeling Figure
Seydou Camara, Musée national du Mali.

Kneeling Figure, Natamatao, Mopti region, Mali, Terracotta, 12th-14th century.

Talismanic Textile
Art Institute of Chicago

Talismanic Textile, Probably Senegal, late 19th or early 20th century, Four panels joined: cotton, plain weave; painted; amulets of animal hide and felt attached by knotted strips of leather.

Erg Chebbi dunes. 
Cynthia Becker

The dunes of Erg Chebbi, Morocco.

The great mosque of Djenné and the Monday great market
Hamdia Traore

The Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali, and the Monday Great Market, August 2013.

As the exhibition’s title suggested, many of the objects in it are fragments. Much of the archaeological record from this period has unfortunately not survived time. Pieces of decorative glazed ceramics attest to the thriving commerce of ancient towns; a fragment of a fifteenth-century woven blanket from Mali—among the oldest surviving textiles from West Africa—speaks to the origins of contemporary African weaving patterns.

“I was reading archaeological records from these African sites and realized that in them is a record of globalism,” Berzock said. “You start realizing they excavated a fragment of porcelain from China, glassware from Syria and Egypt, and terracotta from all over this expansive interregional network. So that’s when I started putting together this bigger narrative.”

Kathleen Bickford Berzock, 2017

Gate of the Wind or Bab Fez (Gate to Fez) stands at the northern limit of Sijilmasa, Morocco. Ancient arcades over a portal were restored in a more recent era.

The Block Museum partnered with institutions in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria to arrange rare loans of African material. “It would be unusual to do that with a single African country, much less three,” Berzock said. “But it was important to work with the source countries and join with them in spreading knowledge about their collections and support their efforts to protect and preserve their cultural patrimony.”

The curator, well aware that viewers might find a fragmentary collection challenging to interpret, introduced other objects to invite people to imagine what these slivers once were. The Chinese porcelain piece, for instance, was accompanied by a similar, fully intact bowl, also from the Song Dynasty. A large, twentieth-century shield from Niger, embellished with copper disks, is one example of how pieces of copper-alloy fittings made in the Western Sudan might have been used.

While gold once flowed through the Sahara, there are few examples of surviving objects of worked gold from the region. As historian Sarah M. Guérin explains in the exhibition catalog, this is largely due to gold’s fungibility and the violence of colonization. One example dates to 1890, when French colonizers invaded an empire in Mali and melted its vast majority of gold jewelry down for bullion. Other coins made of West African gold made their way to Florence and Venice, where they were hammered into gold foil. Artisans then used these thin sheets to embellish panel paintings and frescoes, giving their work a glistening effect when viewed by candlelight.

In addition to gold, Europeans also demanded the tragic commodity of ivory from Africa, particularly during the Gothic period. The vast majority of delicate diptychs, caskets, book covers, and other personal objects from this period were made from the tusks of African Savannah elephants, as they were large enough to accommodate intricate figural carvings. The precious material was shipped across the Sahara in caravans along with gold and other goods.

Walk through a major collection of medieval art such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s today, and many of these creamy-white works will gleam from behind display cases, testaments to the skills of European artisans. Yet, any influence Africa had on this major art movement is essentially silent in institutions. Caravans of Gold urged us to think of the medieval world as not just filled with knights and horses in armor but also of veiled nomads and their camels, burdened with riches.

About the Author

Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a Chicago-based art writer. Her work has appeared in publications such as ARTnews, Artsy, Chicago Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Hyperallergic, where she was previously a staff writer.

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