Skip Navigation

Africa in Antiquity: The Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan

DATES September 30, 1978 through December 31, 1978
  • August 1, 1978 Dates: September 30 - December 31, 1979

    Description: The first comprehensive international exhibition of the artistic achievement of an ancient African civilization whose distinctive character, extraordinary vitality, and influence on the course of African history are almost unknown. Although scholars have been aware of Nubia for the past century, its culture has been thought of incorrectly as a footnote to that of Egypt. Now, to help document the distinctive development of this culture and its impact on other civilizations, 25 institutions in the United States, Europe and Africa have lent more than 250 objects encompassing the history of Nubia and the Sudan from 3000 B.C. to the twelfth century A.D.

    Background: Nubia is the geographic area that straddles the borders of the modern states of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the north and the Democratic Republic of the Sudan to the south. The Egyptian third of the region has been flooded by the reservoir of the High Dam at Aswan. Contemporary Nubia extends from Aswan to a point near Khartoum, the present capital of the Sudan. In the past, the power of Nubian civilization reached more than 1000 miles into inner Africa.

    Nubia has been brought to our attention recently because of the construction of the High Dam at Aswan (1964) and the resulting inundation of Nubian monuments. Beginning in 1959, under the sponsorship of UNESCO, more than thirty expeditions from many countries undertook the most extensive archaeological campaign in history to record and rescue the endangered works of art. The wealth of material excavated has stimulated scholars to investigate the art and history of ancient Nubia. The gift of the Temple of Dendur to the United States was an expression of gratitude for American assistance in the project.

    Contents: Lacking a formalized history, scholars have designated the earliest cultures as A-group (ca. 3500-3000 B.C.) , C-group (ca. 2300-1500 B.C.), and Kerma culture (ca. 2200 B.C.-1500 B.C.). From the very beginning, funerary vessels and figurines in the exhibition show a vigorous ceramic tradition, both in fabrication and design. The Kerma culture, a period of monumental architecture, is represented here by gold jewelry and faience sculpture.

    The largest number of objects in the show are from the Kingdom of Kush, which is divided into two periods, the Napatan (ca. 900-270 B.C.) and the Meroitic (ca 270 B.C.-A.D. 350). Kush was ruled by an unbroken line of 76 rulers, many of them women. During the early Napatan Period, the kings of Kush conquered Egypt and ruled there for nearly a century as the XXV Egyptian Dynasty. Their power as a force in the ancient world is recorded in sources both Biblical and Hellenic, where they are referred to as Ethiopians. They raised an army to aid the ancient Hebrews in their fight against the Assyrians, and later negotiated a non-aggression pact with the Roman Empire. Adopting many of the trappings of Egyptian pharaohs, the Kushites built pyramids (there are more pyramids in the Sudan than in Egypt), decorated pyramid chapels with sculpture, and filled their tombs with objects in precious metals. Objects in the exhibition from these sources include a cache of gold jewelry from the pyramid tomb of Queen Amanishaketo, which consists of armlets, gold and silver seal rings depicting ritual scenes, and shield rings designed to cover several fingers. Discovered in the 19th century by an Italian adventurer and now divided between museums in Munich and Berlin, the cache will be re-united here for the first time.

    Also included in the exhibition from the kingdom of Kush are life-size stone sculpture of kings and gods. A type of tomb-sculpture unique to this period are human statues with wings, probably a representation of the soul of the deceased. In addition to this royal art are a number of “folk art” paintings on ceramic which are remarkable for their freshness and vitality--genre scenes of people and animals that contribute rare evidence of the lives of the common people.

    After the fall of the kingdom of Kush, there rose in the northern part of Nubia the Ballana Culture, which flourished from the fourth to the sixth centuries A.D. Though very little is yet known of this period, excavations of tumulus graves (mound burials) have produced skeletons of retainers and horses, and, as seen in the exhibition, elaborate bronze lamps in the form of animals and human faces, an incised ivory portrait of a young girl, ornate silver crowns encrusted with semi-precious stones, and representations of Egyptian and Kushite gods.

    In A.D. 543, Theodora, the wife of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, sent a mission to the upper Nile to convert Nubia to Christianity. The Christian Period continued until 1504, half a century after the fall of Byzantium, when it was superceded by Islam. Included in the exhibition is an important 12th-century fresco from the Great Cathedral at Faras in Sudanese Nubia; it shows Christ protecting a local official.

    The concluding section of the exhibition will consist of photographic blow-ups and text panels to document the role of 19th-century travelers and turn-of-the-century archaeologists in the exploration of Nubia; and a selection of contemporary crafts, photographs and slides focussing on present-day Nubians will stress their evolving cultural traditions through the continuity of ancient motifs in architecture and crafts.

    Public Programs: A three-day symposium conducted by about twenty scholars from Africa, Europe, and the United States will be held at the beginning of the exhibition (September 29 - October 1) to be followed by a full range of programs including a series of lectures and film showings. Related events will take place at the New School for Social Research and the America[n] Museum of Natural History.

    The Museum’s Community Services Department is organizing a resource center to provide materials and services to civic groups. Special instructional information for children and teachers will also be made available.

    Catalogue: Two volumes. Volume I, essays by William Y. Adams, Ahmed M. Ali Hakem, Fritz Hintze, Jean Leclant, David O’Connor, Karl-Heinz Priese, and Bruce G. Trigger; 176 pages, 99 illustrations, 21 in color (clothbound, $26.00; paperback, $12.00). Volume II, an analysis of the art of Nubia plus full catalogue entries for each object in the exhibition by Steffen Wenig; 352 pages, 364 illustrations, 43 in color (clothbound, $40.00; paperback, $18.00). Published by The Brooklyn Museum.

    The Brooklyn Museum (September 30 - December 31)
    Seattle Art Museum (February 15 - April 15, 1979)
    New Orleans Museum of Art (May 19 - August 12)
    Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, The Netherlands (September 15 - November 11)

    Lenders: Among the 25 participating institutions are the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, German Democratic Republic; the National Museum, Warsaw; Sudan National Museum, Khartoum; Cairo and Aswan Museum, Egypt; Egyptian Museum of Karl Marx University, Leipzig; National Museum, Athens; the British Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; University Museum, Philadelphia.

    Curator: Bernard V. Bothmer, Chairman, Department of Egyptian and Classical Art, The Brooklyn Museum;
    Coordinator: Floyd Lattin, The Brooklyn Museum;
    Education Specialist: Marie-Therese Brincard;
    Designer: Charles B. Froom;
    Exhibition Construction: Greyhound Designgroup.

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1971 - 1988. 1978, 022-24.
    View Original