By Southwester Staff 

Currently on view at the Smithsonian ​​National Museum of African Art, the exhibit “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa” is filled with delightful surprises for lovers of art and archeology. 

Covering 800 years of trade over three continents, the exhibit connects objects and other commodities, showcasing 300 works from what was the medieval period in Europe, that is from the beginning of Islam in the 8th century C.E. to before Europeans arrived on ships to Africa’s Atlantic Coast in the early 1600s.

At the entryway, the Catalan Atlas represents the global interconnections of the world map as it was known in medieval times. Created on the island of Majorca as a gift to King Charles V of France, it features Mansa Musa, the powerful 14th century ruler of Mali and possibly the richest man in the world, wearing a golden crown and grasping a large gold orb and scepter.

Revealing a wide world of trade that spread from Nigeria and Ghana to England, Italy, Iran and Xi’an, China, the pieces in the exhibition clearly place the Sahara Desert at the center of a global network of exchange. These pieces include a 6.5 inch ivory statuette of the Virgin and Child from the French Gothic period that could only have been carved from the tusk of an African savanna elephant, and a 14th century tempera on gold panel from Siena, Italy, “The Crucifixion” by Nado Ceccarellli, that was obtained from across the Sahara. Also on view is a small fragment of celadon porcelain known as Qingbai, produced in Southeastern China in the 10th and 12th centuries C.E., but excavated at a site in Mali. 

There are ample opportunities to use “archeological imagination” to understand our present moment, as recent finds in archeological digs are connected to modern life. Featured are works such as 19th and 20th century textiles and jewelry alongside archeological beads, jewelry and pottery of enduring beauty. Ageless are gold works include a stunning Biconical Bead (dated 10th-11th century, Egypt or Syria) and a marvel of technical sophistication, the 10th century Leaf from the Blue Qur’an.

In addition, there are connections with the rich past. Among the most delightful pieces are the statuettes of horseman from Mali, dated between the 13th to 15th century, a ceramic equestrian figure and terra cotta work titled “Four Figures.” An early 20th century Tarik or Tamzak (camel saddle) by a Tuareg artist is more complex, using leather, wood, fabrics, metals and cheetah skin. Viewed together, these works represent the regional

continuity of trading over centuries.

The Smithsonian’s “Hi” mobile app allows visitors to the exhibition to engage further

with the artworks on their smartphones. Visitors can scan a work of art to discover an

added layer of digital content. Videos are available for worldwide viewing as well as for museum visits.

The Smithsonian ​​National Museum of African Art exhibit “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa” is on view through February 27, 2022. 

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