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

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

Vinnie Ream: The Teen Who Met With Abraham Lincoln for 30 Minutes Every Day

Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.

Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.

After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.

Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”

Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.

After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.

Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.

But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.

Vinnie Ream's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln still stands in the Capital Rotunda
USCapitol via Flickr // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This article originally ran in 2016.

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