The Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA), has announced the Block Museum’s groundbreaking exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, as a recipient of two of its highest honors . The exhibition was awarded a 2021 Award for Curatorial Excellence, which recognizes important curatorial contributions to the dissemination and understanding of African and African Diaspora Arts, as well as a 2021 Arnold Rubin Outstanding Book Award which is given for excellence in published scholarship on the arts of Africa and the African Diaspora. Selected by an international jury of scholars, the awards were announced June 20, 2021 at the ACASA Triennial Conference.
ACASA promotes greater understanding of African material and expressive culture in all its many forms, and encourages dialogue and collaboration with African and Diaspora artists and scholars. ACASA’s Triennial Symposium on African Art, is the premier international forum for presenting cutting edge research on the arts of Africa and the African Diaspora. The ACASA Triennial 2021 happened online from June 16 to 20, 2021
Karen E. Milbourne, the Senior Curator at Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, presented Kathleen Bickford Berzock, curator of Caravans of Gold, and Associate Director of Curatorial Affairs at The Block, with the ACASA Curatorial Award for Excellence.
“This extraordinary exhibition pulled together a team of professionals from Morocco, to Mali, Nigeria, and Chicago, to draw attention to the central role played by trans Saharan trade routes, Western African polities, and the global networks that shaped the medieval era. Together, experts brought new insights to some of the most renowned treasures of African art history while also revealing the profound insights to be found in shards, fragments and the archeological imagination. Caravans of Gold pushed against the masterpiece model by including fragments to tell a complicated story of material and cultural entanglements.”
In her remarks, Berzock described how the exhibition pushed against established curatorial conventions by using fragments to center the story of medieval Africa.
“Thank you so much to ACASA and to the committee for this incredible honor. It’s really thrilling. Caravans of Gold, was conceived to bring into the mainstream a history of trans Saharan exchange from the eighth to the 16th centuries. This is a history that’s well documented, but it has been rendered largely invisible over centuries of white supremacy that’s included the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and their aftermaths. In the museum, this story has also been excluded. This is in large part because of entrenched conventions about what should and shouldn’t be in the art museum.
It quickly became clear that starting with the archeological fragment was an important foundation for being able to make tangible and visible this history. And so working with an international team of scholars and advisers, including archeologists and other specialists, we identified fragments from archeological sites, and then we brought them into the gallery and we juxtaposed them with things that could help us understand what those fragments were, what those fragments were telling us about the past and therefore to make that past visible.”
Caravans of Gold’s model of generative and reciprocal partnerships with African institutions also became part of the ongoing dialogue at the ACASA conference. Berzock chaired a discussion titled Africa-Based Agendas for Museums and Material Heritage. Roundtable participants included Adebo Nelson Abiti , Uganda National Museum, Candace Keller & Youssouf Sakaly, Archive of Malian Photography; El Hadji Malick Ndiaye, Musée Théodore Monod d’art africain (IFAN Cheikh Anta Diop) and Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, Senegal; Abba Tijani, Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments; and Chao Tayiana, African Digital Heritage. This panel looked beyond debates about restitution that currently dominate African heritage dialogues in Europe and North America to address a wider slate of priorities for Africa’s museum and material heritage sectors. The roundtable focused on initiatives and international partnerships that are led by Africa-based institutions and specialists.