PRINT April 2020



View of “Ancient Nubia Now,” 2019–20, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

THE LATE SINGER and composer Hamza El Din (1929–2006) spent many decades touring America with his oud and tar (a kind of tambourine) to introduce American audiences to Nubian music. This indefatigable artist, born in the village of Toshka in Nubia, southern Egypt, had committed himself to preserving the musical heritage of his native land after he witnessed its horrific submersion under the waters of Lake Nasser in the late 1960s in the wake of the construction of the High Dam. The inundation swallowed many Nubian villages and permanently displaced their inhabitants. This draconian act of expropriation was not the first time that Nubia had been sacrificed for the benefit of other nations or international geopolitics. Indeed, the history of Nubia, with the exception of a few short centuries, is a chronicle of annexation, exploitation, and subordination.

Both in their own time and later, as objects of historical inquiry, Nubia’s kingdoms were overshadowed by the epitomic mother of all ancient civilizations: the mighty pharaonic Egypt. In a historiography drenched in antiblack prejudice, Nubia constituted the geographical boundary between black Africa and brown (some would insist white) North Africa, thereby playing a critical role in the cultural tug-of-war between these two meta-racial zones. The effects of this contest are still with us today.

The region’s fraught afterlives were explored in the recent exhibition “Ancient Nubia Now” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Rich, beautifully curated, with maps, framed quotes, and interviews on high-res monitors lending essential context, the show was quite argumentative, even polemical—surprising for a usually conservative institution. Revisionist in its storytelling, it valiantly attempted to rewrite the obscured history of Nubian civilization in a way that celebrated its blackness. But it overlooked the main cause of the bias, namely, the hegemonic Western epistemic control of any understanding of civilization, its history, and its sanctioned participants. Loudly critical of how Nubian art has been presented in scholarship and by museums, including the MFA itself, the exhibition could not bring itself to fully face the colonial (and racist) foundations of art history, dependent as it is on the centrality of a fabricated European sequence that excluded Africa, whitened Ancient Egypt, and posited the latter as its own artistic fountainhead. Any organization that wishes to truly (rather than superficially) reckon with the legacies of colonialism must begin by closely examining its own complicity, rendering it transparent, and making concrete plans for redress—and this the MFA has not done. In that respect, the show differs little from other attempts over the past couple of decades to include aspects of postcolonial critique in sweeping institutional surveys of ignored civilizations (e.g., the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Kongo: Power and Majesty” in 2015 and “Armenia!” in 2018).

Stele of Nubian soldier Nenu, Egypt, ca. 2100–2040 BCE, paint on limestone, overall 17 3⁄4 × 14 5⁄8 × 2 5⁄8".

There is a reason closer to home for the museum’s unease about Nubian art. The MFA obtained its twenty-five-thousand-piece collection of Nubian art from excavations conducted in partnership with Harvard University in the early twentieth century, with licenses from British colonial authorities but no Egyptian or Sudanese involvement. The institution’s sensitivity to this issue was expressed in soft mea culpa language throughout the show, especially in a large, prominently displayed poster titled “Nubia, History, and the MFA,” which stated that “this exhibition, drawn entirely from the MFA’s collection, seeks to confront some of the ways in which Nubia’s history has been obscured and misinterpreted over the last century—and the Museum’s own role in that particular story.” Such concern is, of course, welcome. But it was impossible to miss how this carefully phrased text, and the show’s didactics as a whole, avoided the most pressing debate in museological circles these days: Who should own objects obtained under colonial rule, the museums or the countries of origin? The exhibition anxiously dodged the question, instead committing to better stewardship of the MFA’s Nubian collection—though this was not setting a very high bar, considering that the museum had closed its Nubian gallery in 2006 after only fourteen years of operation. 

The revisionist direction was made clear in a poster titled “Nubia: A Black Legacy,” signed by Edmund Barry Gaither, curator of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. “Over the last six decades, important new perspectives have emerged,” Gaither writes, “which assert that Egyptian civilization was in fact indebted to cultures to the south, including Nubia, for some of its formative ideas—and that Egyptian civilization provided much of the foundation for Greco-Roman civilization.” Here he seemed to be alluding to Martin Bernal’s controversial 1987 opus, Black Athena, which argued that ancient Greek culture had significant Afro-Asiatic roots. Highlighting the role of Nubia within Afrocentric discourse and the diasporic struggle to reclaim black identity more broadly, Gaither adds: “Inspired by an increased appreciation of early African heritage, many African-Americans embrace Africa—and Nubia, one of the continent’s oldest civilizations, in particular—as a generalized ancestral legacy.” 

While the notion that “much of the foundation” of Greek civilization was African is rejected by the majority of classicists, the racist repudiation of any influence flowing from sub-Saharan Africa to the Aegean—a denial that, as Bernal showed, emerged during the Enlightenment, rather than dating back to antiquity, and persisted until very recently—has been thoroughly discredited. Drawing on our ever-deepening understanding of the complex networks of cultural exchange, the exhibition foregrounded the extensive reciprocity between ancient Egypt, the unquestionably great civilization whose African credentials are uncertain in the eyes of the West, and the undeniably African civilization of Nubia. Thankfully for the exhibition, the radical standpoint was softened by the deeply historical reading of the concept of race as alien to ancient Africans, including Egyptians, in a video introduced by the biological anthropologist Shomarka Omar Keita. In another video, a soliloquy by the photographer Chester Higgins offered a contextualization of African material cultures and their relevance today. Between them, the two sages implicitly critiqued the monopoly of the Western (or any exclusively defined) civilizational hierarchy. They instead endorsed a civilizational history in which all cultures have contributed and each builds on the achievements of all of its predecessors.

Statue of Lady Sennuwy, Egypt, ca. 1971–1926 BCE, granodiorite, 67 × 45 3⁄4 × 18 1⁄2".

Nubia had a flourishing culture from at least the end of the third millennium BCE, as the exhibition elegantly showed. During that long history, Nubia interacted with other polities around it, especially pharaonic and then Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. The contact between the two countries was marked by an asymmetrical power balance. Nubia always strove to maintain its political independence but was subordinated to its northern neighbor for long stretches. Once, however, the tables were turned: Nubia annexed Egypt for more than eighty years (744–656 BCE). After Piankhy started the conquest of Egypt, four other Nubian kings ruled the extended Nilotic empire as the twenty-fifth dynasty of Pharaohs. It was during that period that writing in Egyptian hieroglyphs appeared in Nubia for the first time, which allowed for a better reconstruction of the country’s history thenceforth. 

The cultural exchange with Egypt, however, was not limited to writing. It was already robust long before the twenty-fifth dynasty, and it remained so long after, flowing in both directions. It manifested not only in stylistic and formal borrowings in art and architecture, but also in the noticeable taste for things Nubian in Egypt and Egyptian in Nubia. This reciprocal covetousness was well illustrated by arguably the most beautiful object in the exhibition, the life-size statue of Lady Sennuwy of Asyut in Upper Egypt, dated to the reign of Pharaoh Senwosret I (1971–1926 BCE). Masterfully carved of gray granodiorite, this statue was probably looted from Egypt centuries after it was carved and brought to Kerma, the capital of Nubia, to be buried in the tomb of a later king with a similar statue of Sennuwy’s husband, Djefaihapi, since shattered. Sennuwy’s statue, along with many comparable objects in the show, elucidated the great admiration that Egyptian culture and art enjoyed in Nubia, even when the expression of such admiration was through looting. This dynamic finds a parallel in the Romans’ appropriation of Greek art and culture, which reached its peak after the former occupied and annexed the latter. In both cases, the military and political victory did not erase the victors’ taste for the art of the defeated. They copied, imitated, and even identified with it. 

Who should own objects obtained under colonial rule, the museums or the countries of origin?

But the most expressive representation of the intercultural spirit to which the show aspired was a modestly painted but wonderful seventeen-by-fourteen-inch Egyptian limestone stele (tomb marker) from the twenty-first century BCE. Attributed to a Nubian soldier, Nenu, the stele shows him standing with the characteristic Nubian short kilt and leather sash while holding in his hands a bow and arrows, the signs both of his function as an archer and his identity as a Nubian. (Famous for archery, Nubians served in great numbers in the Egyptian army during the First Intermediate Period [2181–2055 BCE].) Behind Nenu stands his Egyptian wife, Sekhat Hor, lighter in skin and wearing the typically Egyptian white sheath dress, lovingly wrapping her arm around his chest. Facing the couple are their two children, a boy and a girl, both dressed in the Nubian fashion and having a skin tone that is midway between their mother’s and father’s. Two dogs, one light and one dark, and a servant offering a libation complete the composition and maintain the balance of colors between brown and white. 

The whole image is a quotidian scene of a family comfortable with its ethnic (and what we in the US today would identify as racial) mix. The interest in racial distinction, inherited from an Enlightenment obsessed with social stratification and from the long, bloodstained, and unsettled history of white supremacy and slavery, which still poisons political (and of course cultural) life in the United States, hovers like a penumbra around this ancient image of a world before race, a world long hidden in order to sustain narratives of race. Despite and because of its flaws, this exhibition illuminated both that lost world and the processes that have kept it out of view.

Nasser Rabbat is the is the Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology