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How Northwestern Got Its Hands on Rare Medieval African Art

Photo: Courtesy of Block Museum of Art

Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, opening January 26 at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art, features more than 250 artworks and artifacts from medieval Africa, many of which have never been seen in the United States. We asked curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock for the lowdown on a show that took eight years to assemble.

Why has it been so difficult to exhibit these objects?

It’s rare for American art museums to work with African lenders, because the institutional structures are so different from our own. Caravans of Gold stretches across regions and fields of study, and the loans required multiple visits to Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria.

What are some standout items?

There will be gold jewelry excavated from a Nigerian tomb, and medieval gold from a 17th-century shipwreck. There’s a 10th- or 11th-century biconical bead [pictured] that looks like two ice cream cones made from gold droplets and fused together.

What’s relevant today about this region and time period?

We see so many issues of boundary building these days — who belongs where and why — but in medieval Africa, border crossing was constant. This project looks at the Sahara as a center within the medieval world that extends from Asia to Europe and down to Nigeria — all of it as an interconnected region. It’s mind-boggling to imagine that kind of connectivity.

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