National Museum of African Art hosts virtual “Caravans of Gold” opening [Video]

Almost two years after its opening at The Block, the exhibition “Caravans of Gold” story continues

After traveling to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum in late 2019, the exhibition traveled once more, this time to the Smithsonian Institutions’ National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in Washington D.C. Although initially deterred by the COVID-19 pandemic, the exhibition was finally installed in late 2020 and a virtual opening presented the exhibition to guests all over the world on November 19th, 2020.

Caravans of Gold presents a medieval world that looks outward from the Sahara offering a corrective to perceptions of the period that disregard West Africa’s active connections to far reaching networks of exchange. The exhibition takes as its starting point medieval West Africa’s sparse and scattered material record by focusing on three major sites: Sigilmasa in Morocco, and Gao and Tadmekka in Mali. The rare fragments that emerged from these sites and others like them, make the past tangible. They’re time travelers that are simultaneously of the past and in the present, and they evoke what’s been called the archeological imagination, our ability to imagine the past through its remains.

— Curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock during her introduction of the exhibition.

Watch the Virtual Opening

Watch the recording of the virtual opening on the NMAfA YouTube channel.

Hosted by Deborah L. Mack (NMAfA’s Interim Director) the evening consisted of live music, a Q&A with curators  Kathleen Bickford Berzock (Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs at The Block) and Kevin Dumouhelle (Curator at NMAfA), as well as the participation of a wide list of special guests and speakers: Lonnie G. Bunch III (the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institutions), Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui (Ambassador of Morocco to the United States), His Excellency Mamadou Nimaga (Ambassador of the Republic of Mali to the United States), Dr. Abba Isa Tijani (Director-General of Nigeria’s National Commisions of Museums and Monuments), Aly Kaba (Director of Mayor’s Office of African Affairs, Washington, D.C.), Magalene Johnson Obaji (Chair of the Advisory Board at NMAfA), and Lisa Graziose Corrin (Ellen Phillips Katz Director at The Block).

Amadou Kouyate played a 35 minute set from home.

The evening began with a 35-minute live performance by musician Amadou Kouyate playing the kora, a 21-string instrument from West African orchestras. Kouyate comes from a long tradition (150 generations to be exact) of oral historians/musicians known as Diali in the Manding culture. “The Diali have the responsibility of maintaining traditions and history from generation to generation,” Kouyate explained. In this way, the virtual opening was kicked off by incorporated a complementary aural art form, in addition to the 300 plus works present in NMAfA’s iteration of the exhibition.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institutions

When I found out “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” was coming to the National Museum of African Art, I was excited since I was so impressed when I saw the exhibition at the Block Museum in Evanston. I was struck by its ability to centralize Africa, showing the profound ways the West African gold trade connected the world and transformed it forever […] These 300 plus works spanning the Sahara region of West Africa, breathe life into the complex story and material culture of medieval Africa.

— Lonnie G. Bunch III,  on strengths of the exhibition.

Throughout the evening, NMAfA curator Kevin Dumouchelle led audiences through the exhibition, touring the different sections of the installation. In Saharan Echoes, he explained the overall scope of the medieval Trans-Saharan trade routes, and the impact they had on the sharing of resources, material culture, and ideas. He continued to Driving Desires, focusing on the natural resources that powered these routes, namely salt and gold. In The Long Reach of the Sahara, Dumouchelle focused on the cities and roads around the Niger River, a culturally rich area that flourished alongside the extended trade routes. Then, he delved into Archaeological Imagination Station, a section dedicated to piecing history together from archaeological findings, giving further context to ruins and fragments through the research being carried out by archaeologists and historians.

In Saharan Frontiers, Dumouchelle explored the long reach of trade routes in terms of intellectual and scholarly cross-pollination; the spread of ideas and religion, especially Islam, had long-lasting effects in the societies they touched. Finally, he ended with Shifting Away from the Sahara, which focuses on the dissipation of traditional trade routes as European navigators began to travel by sea in the 15th century instead of relying on middle men and long-distance traders. He highlighting how this change ultimately led to shifting power relations, and the rise of new economies, principally that of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which would forever alter the course of Africa’s history.

Curator Kevin Dumouchelle during the presentation and tour of the exhibition.

This exhibition is a landmark opportunity to reconsider our understanding of world history. Gold from West Africa was an engine that drove the movement people, things and ideas across Europe, Africa and the Middle East in an interconnected medieval world. As the incredible works in this exhibition show, it is impossible to understand the emergence of the early modern world without this West African story. Africa’s history is truly a world history. 

In our story, medieval Africa begins with the spread of Islam in the eighth century of the common era, and recedes with the arrival of Europeans along the continents Atlantic coast at the end of the 15th century. The reach of trans-Saharan exchange is revealed in the fragments excavated from archeological sites, now uninhabited, that were once vibrant communities. In this exhibition, these fragments in time are placed alongside works of art and other materials that allow us to imagine them as they once were. They are the starting point for re-imagining the medieval past, and foreseeing the present in a new light.

— Kevin Dumouchelle, on how the exhibition reconsiders medieval Africa.

The physical exhibition is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and safety concerns, but it remains accessible online through NMAfA’s website. The digital exhibition includes images, videos, interviews, and even an interactive map for further learning.

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