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An MFA Exhibition Tries To Correct The Record On Misrepresented Ancient Nubia03:39
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Visitors to the MFA’s Ancient Nubia Now exhibition look at funerary figurines known as “shawabties.” These small sculptures were often buried with  Nubian kings and queens, numbering sometimes in the hundreds as guardian sentinels for the afterlife. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Visitors to the MFA’s Ancient Nubia Now exhibition look at funerary figurines known as “shawabties.” These small sculptures were often buried with Nubian kings and queens, numbering sometimes in the hundreds as guardian sentinels for the afterlife. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The expansiveness of the galleries immediately catches one's eye. That, and the way the Museum of Fine Arts uses a massive 10,000-square-foot exhibition called "Ancient Nubia Now" to set the record straight.

The MFA was among the first institutions to fund excavations at sites in southern Egypt and northern Sudan in a partnership with Harvard University.

Between 1913 and 1932, George Andrew Reisner, a curator of Egyptian art at the MFA, oversaw the museum’s excavations in these regions.

Though renowned for his impeccable record-keeping, Reisner's own prejudices tainted his work. Reisner interpreted what he found in Nubia by way of Egyptian propaganda found in hieroglyphics, which portrayed the Nubians as the lesser accomplished civilization. As a result, his discoveries in Nubia were often colored through a lens of cultural bias.

“Reisner certainly got wrong this idea that the Nubians were never able to create any wonderful art or important monuments on their own,” said Denise Doxey, a curator at the MFA with a focus on Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art. “And he attributed everything that was really of high artistic value or really monumental as being Egyptian influence at work, which now is known to be incorrect.”

The last and largest of Kerma’s royal tumuli held a quantity of Egyptian sculpture, much of which probably came to Nubia as a result of military incursions into Egypt. It's a statue of Lady Sennuwy, the wife of an important Egyptian official originally stood either in the family tomb at Asyut or in a sanctuary in southern Egypt. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
The last and largest of Kerma’s royal tumuli held a quantity of Egyptian sculpture, much of which probably came to Nubia as a result of military incursions into Egypt. It's a statue of Lady Sennuwy, the wife of an important Egyptian official originally stood either in the family tomb at Asyut or in a sanctuary in southern Egypt. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

More than 400 pieces fill the exhibition, with its dramatic lighting and walls that are deep shades of purple and blue.

Patrons are able to walk through more than 3,000 years of Nubian history, a region that in antiquity was known as Kush and has origins in 2400 BCE. Some of these Nubian artifacts have not been shown in decades.

Doxey said Reisner's ideas were not unique. Like many scholars studying ancient Egypt in the early 20th century, he assumed that Africans south of Egypt could not develop highly advanced civilizations.

“Here's a man who was born two years after the civil war," Doxey said. "He had some racial baggage that dovetailed nicely with the Egyptian attitude."

Doxey said because Reisner wasn't as interested in the objects of daily life, he missed out on a lot of the subtleties and nuances that he might otherwise have found.

Today we know that Nubian kingdoms conquered their enemies including, at one point, their neighbors on the Nile, the Egyptians.

The exhibition displays artifacts from the three Ancient Nubian capitals. There is Kerma pottery, known for depictions of gods and goddesses in the form of animals. There are ornate sculptures of Napatan kings from the Napata period, and intricate jewelry of the Meroe period.

Ancient artwork from Kerma, the first capital of Nubia which had origins in 2400 BCE. Much of of the pottery and artifacts from that kingdom was often found with this blue or aquamarine hue. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Ancient artwork from Kerma, the first capital of Nubia which had origins in 2400 BCE. Much of of the pottery and artifacts from that kingdom was often found with this blue or aquamarine hue. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Because Kerma did not have a written language, Reisner mistakenly claimed that this ancient Nubian capital was actually an Egyptian outpost in Nubia ruled by an Egyptian governor. Researchers have long known that there were Egyptian sculptures in Kerma that were spoils from a successful attack. These souvenirs were taken from Egypt by the Nubians as symbols of dominion. Among those sculptures on display in the exhibition is a massive 2,000 pound sculpture of Lady Sennuwy, the wife of an important Egyptian official, which was found buried in the tomb of a Nubian ruler.

“The museum was paying Reisner to be there and spending lots and lots of money. So he wanted to find things he could bring back and put in the museum,” Doxey said. “But he was also a scholar. And in some ways, it was a symbiotic relationship that the museum wanted him to bring back artwork."

The story of ancient Nubia and ancient Egypt is one of two neighboring kingdoms who fought, but intermingled. Over time they shared beliefs, craftsmanship, and culture. Throughout the galleries, among the artifacts, are videos of different people reflecting on the modern day legacy of ancient Nubia and how it resonates.

In one video, biological anthropologist Shomarka Keita, research affiliate in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, talks to the issue of race and what he calls a deep shared ancestry of these societies in the Sahara.

"Ancient Nubia and Ancient Egypt share roots, in northeast Africa in the Sahara and along the Nile Valley," Keita said. "There is no evidence that the ancient Egyptians who did medicine, who made observations and sometimes detailed artwork about the environment around them, animals, plants, there is no evidence that they had a theory of human variation that would be commensurate or similar to notions of race as they were developed in Europe."

In another video, Lana Bashir, a student at University of Massachusetts Lowell, gives insight into her own Sudanese heritage and the importance of representation.

"When I look at the statues it gives me this new perspective that you don't always get to see," Bashir said. "...It's rare that you get to see that Africa is full of kings and queens and art and culture."

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Cristela Guerra Twitter Reporter
Cristela Guerra is an arts and culture reporter for The ARTery.

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