Suzanne Preston Blier

Suzanne Preston Blier

Robert Lehman Harvard Visiting Professor
1325: How Medieval Africa Made the World Modern
2021-2022 (April-June)
Suzanne Blier


Suzanne Preston Blier is the Allen Whitehill Clowes Professor of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University. Two of her articles appeared in Art Bulletin’s Centennial Anthology of the top 33 articles from the last century. Recent books include Picasso’s Demoiselles: The Untold Story of the Origins of a Modern Masterpiece (2019; winner of the 2020 Robert Motherwell Book Award for the history and criticism of modernism), and Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba (2015;  2016 Prose Prize in Art History and Criticism). Blier is a member of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Chair of the Worldmap International Advisory Committee, and Past President of CAA and its delegate to the ACLS.

Project Summary

1325 was a year like no other; it not only marks the unofficial transition from the medieval Gothic era to the Modern Age, but also is the year when the world’s richest man, Mali Emperor Mansa Musa, spent so much gold in Cairo that he caused a global financial crash (impacting world economies through 1350). During 1325, and the four centuries preceding it, Africa and the Islamic world fostered a series of revolutionary changes, the likes of which the world had never known. This is the notably global setting in which Mansa Musa and Granada-born poet Abu Es Haq es Saheli (aged c. 44 and 34 respectively) would meet, journey back to Mali, and both witness and participate in this still unfolding revolution. This project also addresses and counters four broadly held myths about African, European, and world history, namely: 1) the Italian Renaissance was largely dependent on the rebirth (reinvention) of Classical Greco-Roman traditions in Europe; 2) that Islam carried within its womb the great Classical Greco-Roman traditions for future generations, offering little else of its own accord; 3) that Africa remained throughout deeply shrouded in darkness and ignorance, and; 4) that Islam is a monolithic religion and largely Middle Eastern-derived religion and cultural revolution with few if any core contributions from North and West Africa or Andalusia. Would Modernity have been possible without the vital inventions and interventions from the worlds of Africa and the Western Islam? No.