Some Atlanta art lovers may be surprised that the High Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition titled Ancient Nubia: Art of the 25th Dynasty from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston because the High has seldom presented exhibitions of artworks older than the European Renaissance.
The museum’s oldest medieval holdings date from the 14th century and the oldest object in the collection overall is an elegantly polished stone Tool from Niger that dates from the Paleolithic or Neolithic era.
So, it makes sense that the High’s Fred and Rita Richman Curator of African Art, Lauren Tate Baeza, has selected the 25th Dynasty art for this show from the larger Boston exhibition of 2020. The High exhibit runs through September 3.
Highlighting works from an era about 2,500 years ago, when Nubia ruled over Egypt, Ancient Nubia only partly fills in a chronological gap in the African art to which Atlanta audiences have been exposed.
It also makes sense for Baeza to have the show overlap with her first High Museum exhibition, Bruce Onobrakpeya: The Mask and the Cross (through July 30), a thematic look at parts of the career of a significant, influential Nigerian modernist artist whose work has been included in major exhibitions internationally and in the United States but has not previously received a solo show in an American museum.
What the two exhibitions have in common is as significant as what divides them both geographically and chronologically (Nubia is in East Africa, Nigeria in West Africa, and the time difference between the two periods represented is about 2,500 years).
The two together suggest that, despite diversity of specific origin, art on the African continent has long been in conversation with neighboring or more distant cultures, whether through trade or conflict.
Ancient Nubia was located immediately south of Egypt, mostly in what is now Sudan, and alternated between trade and conflict with its neighbor. Nubia was ruled by Egypt for about 500 years but 250 years later came to rule Egypt for about the same length of time. That period was known as the 25th Egyptian Dynasty and it is this phase of the powerful and artistically productive Napata kingdom that Baeza has chosen to highlight.
Looking closely at the mostly small artworks in this exhibition makes clear the mixed cultural currents. The numerous shawabties (small figures representing the agricultural laborers who would support the king in his afterlife) have singularly individual facial features, even though their Egyptian-influenced forms depict a standardized standing figure. Despite their resemblance to shawabties from Egypt, these superb sculptures are fascinatingly different from their Egyptian precursors.
The gorgeous diversity of jewelry on display here, from extravagant necklaces to intimate protective amulets, will be one of the most attractive features of the show for many visitors. Others will be interested in the less flamboyant symmetry of the canopic jars once containing internal organs of members of Napata’s royal families, in accordance with Egyptian practices of mummification. The complete, but transient, adoption of these funerary traditions was part of Napata’s dominance over its northern neighbor.
The most charmingly repellent deity of this Egyptianizing segment of Nubian history is Bes, a tongue-extending lion-faced dwarf whose function was to protect sleeping households from harm, and to frighten off evil influences in general. A small amulet and a larger statuette show off his attributes memorably.
The only problem with this show is that it represents ancient Nubia’s art at the height of its absorption of the culture Napata had conquered. This adoption of Egyptian styles and religious practices is one reason Nubia was at first assumed to be only an outrider of Egypt, until fresh interpretations of the distinctly Nubian objects from before and after the 25th Dynasty made clear how powerful the various kingdoms of Nubia had been, and how they were inclined to use the accomplishments of the surrounding nations as they saw fit.
Bruce Onobrakpeya: The Mask and the Cross reflects a different African response to conflicting and confluent cultures — in this case, Nigerian traditions and British colonialism.
In 1967, Onobrakpeya began 11 years of creating works on Christian themes, commissioned by the Catholic Church. His Fourteen Stations of the Cross, a suite of linoleum block prints based on a mural for St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Ebute Metta, Lagos, caused controversy when he set the trial and death of Jesus in 20th century Nigeria, with Nigerians in colonial-era police uniforms carrying out the crucifixion and Pontius Pilate replaced by one of the local Nigerian magistrates who carried out colonial policy.
Onobrakpeya reverted to more traditional imagery in his illustrations for a children’s book of basic Christian beliefs and biblical events. Even then, his presentation is powerfully composed and unconventional, as in the contrast of a drunken-looking house and stable piece of architecture in the illustration of Jesus’ parable of The foolish and the wise builder.
These works form a key part of his reputation, but it is his subsequent productions as a printmaker turned bas-relief sculptor that are the most spectacularly compelling segment of this exhibition.
His invention of the form he calls the “plastograph” involves deep etching into blocks of plaster, from which textured prints can be made. Plastocasts are tinted low-relief sculptures incorporating used printing plates, cast and framed in the form of paintings.
The stunning, monumental plastocast The Last Supper, 2021 –similar to a 1981 version in the Tate in London — is dominated by an image of Jesus and the Apostles symmetrically arranged around a semi-oval table that holds variously elongated forms resembling drinking cups or ancient oil lamps.
A smaller and slightly different Last Supper establishes that this is one of Onobrakpeya’s repeated motifs, and that the goblet-like objects are parts of a menorah. The central image is surrounded by details from Onobrakpeya’s Stations of the Cross.
Previous international exhibitions have focused primarily on Onobrakpeya’s reinterpretations of Nigerian cultural traditions, an unfamiliar point of entry for many viewers. By contrast, The Mask and the Cross begins with religious symbols familiar to many visitors and seeks to expand their understanding from there.
Both shows remind us how much we as viewers don’t know and, in the case of ancient Nubia, may never know. They should serve as an incentive to learn more about ancient and modern cultures unlike ours.
Dr. Jerry Cullum’s reviews and essays have appeared in Art Papers magazine, Raw Vision, Art in America, ARTnews, International Journal of African-American Art and many other popular and scholarly journals. In 2020 he was awarded the Rabkin Prize for his outstanding contribution to arts journalism.