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    Ground view of the National Gallery's glass pyramids looking towards the East Building

    Research Reports

    Anastasia Dakouri-Hild
    Center 43

    Anastasia Dakouri-Hild

    The World In Between: Egypt and Nubia in Africa

    Stela of the Nubian archer Nenu with his Egyptian wife Sekhathor, possibly from el-Rizeiqat near Luxor, First Intermediate Period, Dynasty 8-11, limestone and paint, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Emily Esther Sears Fund, 03.1848

    The ideological annexation of Egypt by Western civilization has historically received many forms. From the late 16th century onward and especially following Napoleon’s 1798 invasion, Europeans took a keen interest in ancient Egypt. Through the mystifying lens of Orientalism, Egypt was both further distanced from and claimed as a glorious ancestor of the West. As a paragon of civilizational greatness and successful “empiring” in the past, as well as a geopolitical bridge connecting Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, ancient Egypt became one of many intellectual tools by which European empires would be rationalized and legitimized. The representation of ancient Egypt as in Africa but not of Africa, and its concomitant relegation to the “East,” served as the definitional counterpoint of a colonized Africa. Egyptomania proliferated in European culture, from architecture, art, theater, and film to literature and music, and Europe became firmly rooted in the Egyptian past as Egypt was permanently excised from Africa. Despite Vivant Denon’s early assessment of ancient Egyptians as Nubians, 19th- and early 20th-century scholarship strongly questioned the premise that Egyptian civilization emanated from Africa, in the sense of both an African population being capable of producing it and its indigenous origin in the continent. The issue, of course, was not simply geography. Esteemed Egyptologist Flinders Petrie would devise a theory of a migrating “Great Race” to grant modern Europeans a racial pedigree linked to one of the earliest cultures of Egypt, Naqada. Similarly, 19th-century art-historical discourse on Egypt was blended with racial science in works such as Josiah C. Nott’s Types of Mankind (1854). These works produced powerful hegemonic discourse that promoted and actively shaped racialized thinking about the present; they also established a remarkably enduring conceptual framework by which to read fresh archaeological finds and deny the existence of other, contradicting evidence.

    Ka statue of an Egyptian unnamed official, carried off from an unknown location in Egypt to the Kerman royal tumulus K III 4(1) during the Egyptian Second Intermediate Period, from Kerma, Sudan, Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12 (statue), granodiorite, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition, 14.723

    In the last four decades, there has been increasing interest in Nubia, which has shed considerable light on the complex interrelationship of Egyptian and Nubian cultures. Some of this research has taken the form of museum exhibitions, which represent a multitude of perspectives. Some have adopted a “continental” view, for example, situating ancient Egyptian or Nubian art within the body of African art in general (Africa in Antiquity, 1978; Africa: The Art of a Continent, 1995; Egypt in Africa, 1996; more recently, The African Origin of Civilization, 2022: a clear nod to Cheikh Anta Diop’s work). Others represent a regional/national gaze, focusing on artifacts found within contemporary Sudan (Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile, 1996; Sudan: Ancient Treasures, 2004). Others still have centered on the wealth of Nubia, showcasing superb, typically Egyptianizing, masterpieces (Gold and the Gods, 2014; Nubia: Jewels of Ancient Sudan, 2022). A number of exhibitions have also explored political or racial difference (from Egypt), usually focusing on the later eras (Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa, 1993; Nubia: Land of the Black Pharaohs, 2018; Pharaoh of the Two Lands: The African Story of the Kings of Napata, 2022). Introspective exhibitions that tackle the problematic histories of collections—as, for example, Ancient Nubia Now (2019)—are especially interesting.

    My project centers on a temporary exhibition at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, slated to open in fall 2025. During my tenure at the Center, I compiled a tentative catalog of about 100 artifacts that tell the story of both “Egypt” and “Nubia,” while permitting critical engagement with these terms. The project examines archaeological thinking and evidence to cast light on the intricate and multidirectional rapport among ancient Nilotic cultures in Upper Egypt as well as Lower and Upper Nubia. Beyond merely acknowledging the geographical position of ancient Egypt on the African continent, the exhibition examines the extent to which ancient Egypt was of Africa culturally and the qualities, nuances, settings, and temporalities of that complex embeddedness. It explores the paradigmatic categories of “Nubia” and “Egypt,” what the Egyptian state owes to other African states of its time, and, inversely, what it bequeathed to the latter culturally and politically. In doing so, the exhibition dispels Eurocentric notions of Egypt as the West or the East, while contributing nuance to long-standing inquiries about the interrelationships of ancient Nilotic societies. Further, it demonstrates the liminal qualities of the perceived, rhetorical, and highly politicized “borderland” between Lower Nubia and Egypt, the complex interaction of cultures on either side of this notional limen, and the dynamic interfacing of these ancient civilizations from prehistory through the Kushite and Meroitic areas. More generally, the exhibition highlights the multidirectional interactions of cultures, especially in borderlands. It opens up new vistas on human mobility and assimilation (as seen in the illustrated stela), appropriation and usurpation (as in the Ka statue), colonization and violence, cooperation and trade, the connective tissue between culture and economy, and the manifold links among art, identity, and place.

    University of Virginia
    Leonard A. Lauder Visiting Senior Fellow, fall 2022

    Anastasia Dakouri-Hild returned to the University of Virginia, where she is associate professor of Aegean and Near Eastern art and archaeology. She will finalize her exhibition catalog by summer of 2023.