December 10, 2019

The Beauty of Nubia

“Most people think of ancient Nubia, if they think of it at all, as a poor imitation and perpetual vassal of Pharaonic Egypt. Archaeological discoveries in recent decades have proved them wrong, incrementally revealing magnificent kingdoms. The show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, titled “Ancient Nubia Now” aims to redress the balance further. As it should, since the MFA to some degree helped create that initial impression based on its foundational series of digs with Harvard University between 1913 and 1932, led by the famed George Andrew Reisner of Harvard. To this day, those finds constitute the greatest collection of Nubian artifacts outside of Sudan, the African nation whose upper-Nile region incorporates Nubia of old. So when the museum mounts a major exhibition of 430 choicest pieces out of some 25,000 in its vaults, the result turns out predictably spectacular and full of resplendent surprises.

What it doesn’t attempt to do is to tell ancient Nubia’s full story from its earliest beginnings, which predate Egypt’s and go back to circa 5000 B.C. as demonstrated by early rock paintings. Nor does the show address claims that Nubians ushered in Africa’s first iron age (c. 1000 B.C.). Rather, it concentrates on civilizational peaks through a reinterpretation of the best material from the Reisner years while illuminating the excavation process, the early photography, the locals who participated, the difficult conditions and why Reisner arrived at his premature conclusions. For example, he thought the great early Nubian capital of Kerma was a mere Egyptian outpost. To be fair to him, he had to unearth a culture lacking its own script until classical times while working in remote deserts in blinding sandstorms with 120 degree heat. Meanwhile, already extant Egyptian hieroglyphics had chronicles aplenty of subject Nubians, which, in hindsight, we can now construe better as Pharaonic propaganda.

The show is organized into four sections, each illustrating a major phase of Nubian history chiefly centered on the three powerful Nubian city-states of Kerma (2400-1550 B.C.), Napata (750-332 B.C.) and Meroë (332 B.C.-A.D. 364) with an in-between section devoted to the Egyptian occupation of Nubia (1550-1070 B.C.). The very first objects on view tell us that Kerma evolved its own indigenous craft techniques and aesthetics. Earthenware pots with glowing, seemingly metallic glazes that look ultramodern. Deep-blue faiences as yet beyond the ken of Egypt.”

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