New Exhibition Highlights Mansa Musa, the Richest Man Who Ever Lived

Reproduction of the Catalan Atlas featuring Mansa Musa.
Reproduction of the Catalan Atlas featuring Mansa Musa.
The Block Museum of Art, Bibliothèque nationale de France

Before there was John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos, there was Mansa Musa. Born in the 13th century when West Africa was an abundant source of gold, the king of the Empire of Mali was the richest person in the world, and possibly remains the richest person to ever live. Now, the life of Mansa Musa and the world he lived in are the subject of new exhibits at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

"Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa" highlights parts of Africa prior to European colonization and the Atlantic slave trade. From the 8th to 16th centuries, remarkably pure gold mined in West Africa crossed the Saharan Desert via trade routes and fueled economies in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. West Africa's resources and influence made it one of the wealthiest regions in the world during this period, as evidenced by the artwork and fragments featured in the exhibit. Bronze sculptures, indigo-dyed fabrics, and gold coins are a few of the precious items loaned from Mali, Nigeria, and Morocco.

One highlight of the exhibition, a reproduction of a medieval manuscript called the Catalan Atlas, depicts information about Saharan trade routes, with an illustration of Mansa Musa holding a gold coin featured prominently. The ruler displayed his wealth to the world outside his kingdom when he made a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, accompanied by a caravan of slaves and soldiers wearing silk and camels and horses carrying gold. If he was alive today, his net worth would equal an estimated $400 billion.

Despite his status during his life, many people today have never heard of Mansa Musa. "Caravans of Gold" aims to combat modern perceptions of a poor Africa by highlighting the affluence of medieval West Africa in a major museum exhibit for the first time.

“The legacy of medieval trans-Saharan exchange has largely been omitted from Western historical narratives and art histories, and certainly from the way that Africa is presented in art museums,” curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock said in a statement. “'Caravans of Gold’ has been conceived to shine a light on Africa’s pivotal role in world history through the tangible materials that remain.”

"Caravans of Gold" will run at the Block Museum through July 21, 2019 before traveling to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

A selection of excavated finds from Essouk-Tadmekka, including fragments of glazed ceramics, stone beads, a cowrie shell, a fragment of silk textile, a carved stone torso, and vessel glass fragments.
The Block Museum of Art, Institut des sciences humaines, Mali/Clare Britt

Gold coin of al-Mustans ̇ir Billaˉh (1036–1094 CE), struck in Cairo.
Gold coin of al-Mustans ̇ir Billaˉh (1036–1094 CE), struck in Cairo.
The Block Museum of Art/Bank al-Maghrib, Rabat, Morocco, 521508/Fouad Mahdaoui

Bowl from 11th-century Egypt.
Bowl from 11th-century Egypt.
The Block Museum of Art/The Aga Khan Museum, AKM618

Gold bioconical bead from 10th-11th century Egypt or Syria.
Gold bioconical bead from 10th-11th century Egypt or Syria.
The Block Museum of Art/The Aga Khan Museum, AKM618

Meet the Artist Who Has Been Sketching New York City Subway Stations for 40 Years

art2002/iStock via Getty Images
art2002/iStock via Getty Images

The aesthetic appeal of New York City's subway system is often hidden behind a layer of grime or simply ignored by commuters. Philip Ashforth Coppola has been admiring those finer points of public transit for more than 40 years.

The New Jersey-based artist began sketching and researching the subway’s interior in 1978, Atlas Obscura reports. His pen drawings are in black and white, but Coppola notes the exact colors and the historic significance behind each. The beaver plaques at the Astor Place station, for example, represents real estate mogul John Jacob Astor, who first made his fortune in the fur trade.

“I’ve spent a lot of years on it,” he says in the 2005 documentary One Track Mind (also the title of his 2018 book). “But I haven’t accomplished that much.” The former art student is selling himself short: Coppola has drawn at least 110 of the city’s 472 stations, resulting in 2000 sketches spanning 41 notebooks.

In an interview with WNYC, Coppola admitted that he wasn’t a train enthusiast as a child. “When I was a kid, I liked to draw pictures and tell stories or write them down,” he says. “That sort of ... filed into this new adventure.”

Coppola sees the drawings as a way to preserve the subway system's overlooked details. “The idea is to make a record of what we’ve got, before more of it is lost," he says.

Even irritable commuters realized the significance of his endeavors. “People were just thunderstruck when they saw [Coppola’s] artwork,” says Jeremy Workman, the documentary's director. “It reminded them of art they had seen themselves and maybe didn’t notice. We thought that was a powerful message: Reminding people of the beauty that’s right in front of their eyes.”

You Can Rent a ‘Lisa Frank Flat’ in Los Angeles on

If you went to elementary school in the 1980s or 1990s, chances are there was at least one piece of Lisa Frank gear in your classroom. The artist's aesthetic helped define the decades, and wide-eyed, technicolor animals still hold a special place in the hearts of millennials. Now, you can live out your childhood dream of having a room that looks like the inside of your 3rd grade backpack: a penthouse suite inspired by Lisa Frank is now available to book in Los Angeles.

The Lisa Frank Flat, a collaboration between Lisa Frank and, screams nostalgia. Each room pays homage to the settings and characters in the artist's vast catalog. The bathroom is painted to look like an underwater paradise, with shimmering dolphins swimming in a pink and blue sea. The kitchen is stocked with snacks from your childhood—like Gushers, Pop-Tarts, Pixy Stix, and Planters Cheez Balls—and painted in bright, rainbow animal patterns that will reflect how you feel when your sugar rush peaks.

Lisa Frank bathroom.

Lisa Frank kitchen.

In the bedroom, the colors are toned down only slightly. A light-up cloud canopy and a rainbow sky mural create a soothing environment for falling asleep. And if seeing Lisa Frank around every corner makes you feel inspired, there's a place for you to get in touch with your inner pop artist. The desk comes supplied with pencils, folders, and a notebook—all branded with Lisa Frank artwork, naturally.

Lisa Frank bedroom.

Lisa Frank desk.

Interested in basking in the glow of your childhood hero for a night? Online reservations for the Lisa Frank Flat at Barsala in downtown Los Angeles will be available through starting October 11 and lasting through October 27. You can book your stay for $199 a night—just don't forget to pack your Trapper Keeper.