We like to keep history as we’ve learned it in a headlock, to make sure it doesn’t shift or change. Standard maps are useful aids in imposing paralysis. They turn the world into a fixed field of safe-spots and blanks, an us-them weave of gates and fences.
One of the many — many — benefits of much-maligned “wokeness” has been its message to relax the hold, toss the charts or, better, revise them: explore blanks, rethink fences.
It’s thanks to this more free-breathing approach to history, including art history, that we’re getting a challenger of an exhibition like “Africa & Byzantium,” which opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this Sunday. On the beauty-and-rarity scale it’s way up there: a treasure-chest of fragile and resplendent things — painted books, topline textiles, gilt-flecked mosaics — many on a first-time visit to New York from Africa, Asia and Europe.
At the same time, as its title suggests, the show confuses — in a good way — certain expectations about who made what, and what came from where.
Byzantium, we know, or think we do. As a cultural phenomenon it dated from the early fourth century A.D. when Rome’s first Christian ruler, Constantine the Great, moved the imperial capital east to the ancient city of Byzantion, renamed Constantinople (and now Istanbul) in present-day Turkey. From there a new art, drawing on Greek and Roman traditions and transformed by fresh intellectual and spiritual impulses from farther east, evolved and radiated outward.
Over the centuries, that radiance periodically dimmed. There were internal struggles and external assaults by Persia, Europe, and finally and fatally, in 1453, by Ottoman armies. Yet even when Byzantium ceased to exist as a political entity, it remained a cultural force: a symbol, for both the Christian West and the Islamic East, of an imperishable “golden age” of aesthetic refinement and intellectual breadth.
The Met show introduces a useful check on this textbook account by introducing Africa as a prominent player. Africa would not seem to figure much if we consulted only old art history books, or clung to the still-lingering “dark continent” myths. A main thrust of the show — organized by Andrea Achi, the Met’s associate curator of Byzantine art, with Helen C. Evans, curator emerita, and Kristen Windmuller-Luna, curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where the show will travel — is precisely to expand those books and dispel those myth through visual evidence.
For pre-Christian Romans, Africa, or at least the part of it along the Mediterranean that Rome had occupied, was not marginal, not a hinterland. Proof comes at the start of the show in the form of a large second-centurymosaic panel depicting male servants, or maybe slaves, busy prepping for a feast. One carries a basket of fruit, another a tray of what looks like bread, a third a flagon of wine.
In terms of subject, style and workmanship the piece might have adorned an elite residence in Rome itself. It was, in fact, excavated in Tunisia, one of Rome’s wealthiest provinces, a major exporter of grain and olives, and home to a luxury goods industry that specialized in exquisite rock crystal carving, a sampling of which lights up an early section of the exhibition.
Of the servants depicted in the mosaic, the wine-bearer stands out, at least to contemporary race-conscious eyes, for having a complexion darker than that of his colleagues. He’s one of several depictions of “Black African” figures displayed toward the front of the show. We find others on a pair of linen curtain woven in Egypt, on incised ivory plaques from Nubia (now Sudan), and in a small bronze lamp from what is now Algeria.
Yet, as the curators are careful to note in the catalog, we don’t, even in our identity-alert time, yet have a clear understanding of exactly what political weight or symbolic meaning depictions of racial difference might have carried in a late Roman or early Byzantine context, or how we can interpret beyond being an indicator of multiethnicity as simple social reality, the Roman and Byzantine way of life.
And we must live with unanswered questions when it comes to the subject of religious faith and identity as expressed in North Africa art in the earliest centuries covered by the show, a period when African (notably Egyptian) and Western classical beliefs were mingling, followed by the time when pagan Rome was giving way to Christian Byzantium.
A second century A.D. panel painting of a feather-crowned woman with large, anxious, heaven-cast eyes has been identified as representing the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, actively worshiped during the early Christian era. Two centuries later we find her image still in circulation, but now, depicted, in a Byzantine ivory box, in the guise of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.
And what to make of a commandingly ambiguous portrait-like figure in a fourth-fifth century mosaic panel on loan from the Carthage National Museum in Tunisia? Affectionately called “Lady of Carthage” by modern fans, she projects all kinds of “nonbinary” vibes: She’s coiffured as a female but power-dressed as a male; she gestures a blessing but hefts a spear-like rod. God(ess)? Divinity? Imperial ruler? Personification of Carthage itself? Historians of Roman and Byzantine African art will no doubt suss out an answer — no fewer than 40 such scholars contribute essays to the symposium-like catalog — but one thing is clear: with her haloed head and headlight eyes, she could have been a prototype for countless Byzantine Christian icons that followed.
North Africa, birthplace of the Christian monastic tradition in fourth-century Egypt, was also the source of some of the very first Christian icons, many in the form of portable paintings. There are well over a dozen among the 180 objects at the Met, and a more charismatic ensemble is hard to imagine. The galleries where they are displayed are the engine rooms that heat the show.
Remarkably, two of the very earliest icons known are both here. One is a sumptuously colored tapestry-weave wall hanging, probably from sixth-century Egypt, with an image of a stolid Virgin and Child flanked by archangels with TikTok haircuts. The other icon, also sixth century, is a richly textured panel painting probably done in Constantinople and brought — rumor has it, by the Emperor Justinian — as a gift to the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai (Egypt)believed to be the oldest continuously operating Christian monastery in the world, situated on the peninsula between Africa and Asia. (The picture is still preserved there.)
Though different in form, these two venerable objects share visual features, not only with each other but with images that long preceded and postdated them. The motif of the upward gaze of the Virgin’s eyes in both is the same one seen on the feather-crowned Isis of four centuries earlier, and can be found in icons painted by the Ethiopian Orthodox artists centuries after Byzantium, as a political power, had disappeared.
In Ethiopia today it’s common to see icons old and new — it can be hard to discern the difference, so tenderly are they treated — carried, like healing presences, inside and outside of churches. And when, at the press preview for “Africa & Byzantium,” Archbishop Damianos, the longtime abbot of Saint Catherine at Sinai, delivered a brief dedicatory blessing, there was nothing pro forma about it. He was, after all, leaving living treasures in our keeping.)
Like Saint Catherine’s great icon, many of the objects in this exhibition are of surpassing visual beauty, though to the people who made them, and to those who continue to love them, their real value rests in their spiritual agency. They are animate and interactive, energy sources that never turn off.
Such a dynamic is all but impossible to convey in a museum setting. What museums are good at conveying, or should be, are the confusions and exclusions and ever-changing rhythms of the histories that objects are part of. As for the objects, they are points of light mapping paths through those histories. The paths can be hard to follow; they sometimes are in this dense, winding investigative show. But the vistas that opens are vision-expanding every twist of the way.
Africa & Byzantium
Nov. 19-March 3, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, (212) 535-7710; metmuseum.org.