I’ve been listening to “Harmony Hall” by Vampire Weekend a lot since it came out a few days ago. The band’s first single in some six years calls back to some of their earlier influences, with clear hints of the Afrobeat sounds that defined its self-titled 2008 debut album. Revisiting the album in Pitchfork for its 10th anniversary last year, Fanta Sylla, the son of African music producer Ibrahimi Sylla, wrote, “Vampire Weekend invites a romanticizing of hybridity, the beauty of sharing sounds across international borders and bringing it to new audiences.”
It’s an apt backdrop for thinking about the Block Museum’s groundbreaking new exhibition, Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa. The show tells the story of medieval trans-Saharan trade by putting together “hints” in the form of artifact fragments, showing how cultures blended and interacted through monumental trade routes in Morocco, Mali and Nigeria.
Caravans of Gold is the first exhibition to chronicle such a massive history, and its curator, Kathleen Bickford Berzock, has been thinking about it for the last 15 years. She’s been planning and curating the show for the past seven, beginning when she still worked at the Art Institute. The Block received two significant grants for the project from the National Endowment for the Humanities: $60,000 for planning in 2016 and $350,000 for implementation in 2018. Being such a consequential exhibition, Caravans of Gold will travel to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum in September 2019 and the District of Columbia’s National Museum of African Art in April 2020.