"Caravans of Gold" and the Premodern World: HAA Field Trip to Toronto

Author: Shirin Fozi

On February 22 a group of 37 HAA undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty were in Toronto to see the Aga Khan and Royal Ontario Museums. The central goal of the excursion was to see Caravans of Gold, a path-breaking examination of art, culture, and exchange in the age of Mansa Musa, when access to extraordinary gold mines made a West African king the richest man in the world. Deeply rooted in current scholarship and developed in partnership with curators in Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria, it showcases not only the wealth of the Saharan region during the period ca. 1000-1400 CE but also argues powerfully for the role of trans-continental trade routes in linking Africa to networks of exchange that extended as far as China in the east and France in the north. To name but one example, the show includes ivory statuettes from Paris in dialogue with a bronze figure from Nigeria; the goal is to show that French craftsmen were using African ivory even as African artists were obtaining copper from France. The exhibition was an outstanding opportunity to rethink the global Middle Ages with an emphasis on Africa.  

It was a great privilege to see Caravans of Gold at the Aga Khan, one of the only two museums in North America exclusively dedicated to the art of the Muslim world and a showcase for the diverse artistic practices that are often clustered under the umbrella of “Islamic” art. Containing objects from a vast geographical territory that spans from China and South Asia, across the Middle East, to Spain and North Africa, the permanent collection at the Aga Khan Museum emphasizes the cross-fertilization of cultures, techniques, and artistic practices. Cross-cultural contacts between Muslims and Christians are reflected with particular strength in the collection, which includes medieval architectural decorations recovered from the Iberian Peninsula and also an extraordinary eleventh-century ivory oliphant made in southern Italy. The group also visited the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and had time to explore its outstanding collections of Asian, European, and Indigenous North American art. The ROM, home to one of North America’s finest and most comprehensive collections of Chinese art in particular, offers exceptional possibilities for connecting cultures of the premodern world. Objects from the Six Dynasties through the Mongol empire (220–1368 CE), for example, reflect sustained, in-depth exchange between cultures across Eurasia in ways scarcely accounted for by modern geopolitical boundaries. There was much more in Toronto than could be absorbed in a single day, but still we learned a great deal from even a brief encounter with these powerful collections just across the northern border.  The organizers of the field trip, Shirin Fozi, Sahar Hosseini, and Michelle McCoy, are particularly grateful to the Asian Studies Center, the China Council, the World History Center, and the Undergraduate Dean’s Office for a set of small grants that supported the field trip and allowed us to keep the participation fee to just $30 for transportation, lodging, and museum tickets.

Shirin Fozi, Assistant Professor, History of Art and Architecture, Spring 2020

Constellations Group