The scupture of a head is displayed at the “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa” exhibit at the Block Museum in Chicago (Joshua Lott)

Chicago (AFP) – A first-of-its kind exhibition opening Saturday at a Chicago museum is challenging long-held views of the Middle Ages, exhibiting African artifacts that place the continent at the center of global trade and culture.

The traveling exhibition “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time” debuts at the Block Museum on the suburban Chicago campus of Northwestern University, before traveling to other North American museums.

The exhibit showcases more than 250 items, including many rare and precious artifacts on loan from West African institutions in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria, and traveling for the first time outside of their home countries.

The aims is to showcase what scholars have known for some time — that Africa was part of an interconnected world in the Middle Ages that brought wealth to the continent, and spread cultural and religious practices far and wide.

Africa “was definitely an economic engine” during the Middle Ages, said the Block Museum’s Kathleen Berzock, who spent seven years curating the exhibit.

“The driving idea behind the exhibition is that in the medieval period, Africa, and particularly West Africa, was playing an absolutely critical role in bringing together regions that extended from Europe to North Africa to the Middle East,” Berzock said.

– Recent discoveries, new history –

Organizers said the exhibit was the first time that a US museum had partnered with African counterparts to challenge notions of the continent isolated from the rest of the world during the eighth through sixteenth centuries.

On display are artifacts that show evidence of global economic trade in African goods and materials, with emphasis on the role of West African gold.

These include rare fragmentary artifacts discovered at Saharan archeological sites, as well as African sculptures made of French copper, European religious artifacts made of African ivory, and other pieces of gold, ceramic, glass and textile.

The objects tell a pre-slavery, pre-colonial narrative largely left out of history books and school classrooms, organizers said.

“This history has not been brought to the fore,” said Abdulkerim Kadiri, acting Director-General of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, who traveled to the United States for the show opening.

“The recent discovery of these art objects has led to this exhibition,” Kadiri told AFP.

The exhibition next will travel to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum in September, and to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington DC in April of 2020.

– ‘Center of intellectual excellence’ –

The idea of medieval Africa as “being the center of intellectual excellence,” paid for by world-wide connections and wealth, “is really important for people to understand,” said the Smithsonian’s African Art museum director Augustus Casely-Hayford.

The exhibit comes at a sensitive time in the art world, as important questions are being asked about repatriation of African art taken to Western countries during the colonial era.

A study commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron in November 2018 recommended returning African treasures held by French museums — a radical policy shift that could put pressure on other former colonial powers.

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