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Groundbreaking Aga Khan exhibit shows how Africa shaped world history

Saturday, 2019, September 14
Henry Kim with Prince Amyn Aga Khan   2018-11-22
Opinion by Henry Kim - Aga Khan Museum Director

African stories often left out of western textbooks, writes Henry Kim

The wealthiest person of all time may have been Mansa Musa, the 14th-century ruler of the West African Empire of Mali.

His riches were so famed that a European world map featured a portrait of him, adorned with a golden crown and holding a sceptre and golden ball.

According to accounts, when Mansa Musa made the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca he brought with him 8,000 courtiers, 12,000 slaves, and 100 camels, each carrying up to 300 pounds of gold.

In Egypt, it is said, he gave away so much of his riches that he depressed the value of gold there.

Astounding as it is, Mansa Musa’s story has largely been left out of Western textbooks. And it’s just one of the many stories — revealing how western Africa was at the heart of the medieval world — that are told in the new exhibition Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, opening at the Aga Khan Museum in North York on Sept. 21.

The exhibition, organized by the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, features a blend of new archeological discoveries and stunning masterpieces, many on loan from the national collections of Mali, Morocco, and Nigeria — and never before seen in Canada.

Caravans of Gold is designed to be full of surprises, transporting visitors to an era that may well be unfamiliar to them, when western Africa fuelled the economies of three continents with ideas, much sought-after luxuries, and treasured commodities such as salt, ivory, and gold.

We’re proud to present this view on world history, but our mission at the museum is also to reframe the way we understand the present and to imagine our shared future, so this fall we complement Caravans of Gold with Africa! — a season of art, performances, films, talks, and workshops that celebrate the continent’s world-shaping stories.
Africa! asks visitors to consider how this vast and complex continent is forging the world of tomorrow. That’s why we’re also presenting Ekow Nimako — Building Black: Civilizations, an exhibition that displays new artwork created in response to the groundbreaking scholarship in Caravans of Gold.

The 10 new works commissioned from Ghanaian-Canadian artist Ekow Nimako are all constructed from LEGO pieces, drawing visitors into what he describes as an enchanted realm of advanced African societies that existed 1,000 years in the past and will exist 1,000 years in the future.

Nimako says he hopes that his work prompts visitors to think critically about “the problematic historical perception of Africa as ‘the developing world,’ when by all accounts it should be perceived as the continent that actually developed the world.”
We at the museum share that hope, along with the wish that viewers see in our fall exhibitions, Building Black: Civilizations and Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time, tangible evidence that looking at the past anew can inspire us to gaze into the future with fresh eyes. Perhaps we can even, like Ekow Nimako, be moved to build a new world.

Henry Kim is the director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum in North York.

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