An ivory statuette of the Virgin and Child from the French Gothic period and Naddo Ceccarelli’s “The Crucifixion,” a 14th-century tempera on gold panel from Siena, Italy, are two of the unexpected treasures amidst the collection of art and archeological works to be found in the National Museum of African Art’s “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa.”
Exploring the connections of these objects and other commodities, the exhibit covers what was the medieval period in Europe, which 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.
The 6.5-inch statuette could only have been carved from the large tusk of an African savanna elephant for the figures of the Virgin and Child. Gold, a precious material, was considered a symbol of divinity. Using thin sheets of gold leaf made a visual statement to frame religious works. Separate ivory pieces were used for the throne with gold obtained from across the Sahara to finish the piece.
Featuring over 300 works, the exhibit reveals a wide world of trade that spread from Nigeria and Ghana in Africa to England and Italy in Europe and Iran in the Middle East and as far as Xi’an in China. The routes went both ways. While ivory was acquired through trade, scientific analysis of the copper and copper alloy sculptures from workshops in Ife from the 13th and 14th centuries suggests that some of the ores were mined as far away as France. Copper, in the form of ingots, was likely transported along these routes to West African cities far south of the Sahara.
These are the pages mostly left out of history and art books. Combining present works such as 19th- and 20th-century textiles, jewelry and other objects with fragments of early works, this exhibit provides opportunities to use “archeological imagination” as a starting point for our understanding the present time through interconnections with the past.
Featured are rich examples of gold works that include beside currency and a stunning Biconical Bead (dated 10th-11th century, Egypt or Syria), a marvel of technical sophistication as the 10th-century “Leaf from the Blue Qur’an.”
Beads, jewelry and pottery are archeological treasures, as well as works of enduring beauty still cherished today. In the archeological excavations at Igbo Ukwu, Nigeria, more than 600 prestige objects—including extraordinary cast copper alloy sculptures from the 8th to early 12th century—were uncovered. An extraordinary number, more than 165,000 glass and carnelian beads have been unearthed, as well as the 14th- to 15th-century gold earrings, pendant and rings that were from another site at Durbi Takusheyi.
More than 500 fragments of woven cotton and wool textiles from caves used as burial sites in Mali’s Bandiagara Escarpment, from as early as 11th century, have also been discovered, disclosing information about the areas near the centers of the trans-Saharan trade routes. The variety of weaving and dyeing techniques, as well as ceramic vessels, tools, weapons and ritual items uncovered at these sites, give further clues.
Texts are most significant in illustrating the global interconnection of far-flung regions in the world map. The “Catalan Atlas,” created on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, Spain, features Mansa Musa, the powerful 14th-century ruler of Mali. He is represented wearing a golden crown and grasping a large gold orb and scepter, as he was perhaps the richest man in the medieval world.
New naval technologies in 15th-century Europe began a shift of trading posts from the Sahara to the Atlantic coast of Africa. Gold, ivory and trade staples remained important, but the intermediates of Saharan trade was significantly cut. Ships made possible the transport of increased amounts of goods, as well as the emergence of a new industry—the organized enslavement and commercial export of West Africans forced into labor.
My favorite pieces in the exhibit are the delightful horsemen. From Mali, between the 13th to 15th century, are a ceramic “Equestrian Figure” and terra cotta work “Four Figures.” “Tarik or Tamzak (camel saddle),” an early 20th-century work 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.
Covering almost a thousand years of history, the exhibit was over 10 years in the making. Closed for viewing over a year during the pandemic, the exhibit is on display at the National Museum of African Art through Feb. 27, 2022.