October is Black History Month in the UK and Kemet remains a popular subject choice when I am asked to present lectures. In fact this year I will presenting 4 lectures on Kush.
Kemet has inspired many people of African heritage, with many from the Diaspora making a cultural journey the Giza plateau; this included Malcom X during his 1964 trip to Africa.
Six years later the artist Jack Whitten produced an extraordinary piece of art entitled Homage to Malcom (above). The piece was recently displayed in the exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern in London. The connection to Kemet was immediately apparent but on closer inspection of the piece and the accompanying information I learned that the surface was created by using an afro comb over the painted surface. Thus drawing on another shared history between African and its Diaspora of the comb.
Since the turn of the 20th century eminent African American scholars, artists and activists had made the connection between Kemet and the rest of the African continent, including the artist and print maker Charles C. Dawson and the scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Some people may be surprised to hear that Du Bois was in direct contact with early Egyptologist W.M.F.Petrie. Egyptologist Dr Vanessa Davies has been researching communications between the two; her early findings were reported here in a lecture and are well worth exploring and a good reminder of the long history of African American activism, which (of course) reaches back to when the first people were forcibly removed from their home land.
It’s just a pity that in the 21st century museums are still neglecting to even reference the connections between Kemet, African and people of African descent. In 2017 there should not still be a need to have Black History ‘Month’. African cultural heritage should be available to everyone all of the year round. Nor should the connection between Kemet and other African cultures be restricted to special exhibitions or projects; it should be made automatically and as a matter of course.
Notes on Black Abstraction Mark Godfrey in Soul of a Nation. Art in then Age of Black Power edited by M. Godfrey and Z. Whitley 2017.
It was great to see so many friends at my recent London lecture for Black History Month, which had been organised by the Equiano Society and the British Museum. Some people who were not able to attend asked me if I would summarise the talk, so that is what this post will do.
I began by talking about the lack of theoretical frameworks within Egyptology and illustrated this point later in answer to a question with the dating of the sculpture in the current exhibition: Sunken Cities. Egypt’s Lost Worlds. The statues above form part of this exhibition and are dating the Early Ptolemaic Period by the curators. However, I would suggest, based on parallels, that this in fact represents Ptolemy VIII and one of his wives. I’m not suggesting that my interpretation should be taken over that of the curators of the exhibition. However, I used it to demonstrate that if we had solid frameworks on which to date and interpret the material culture of Kemet, of Egypt at this time, then there would be no such debate.
Of equal importance is the extent to which the lack of academic frameworks increases the likelihood of confirmation and cognitive bias.
I then when on to consider popular conspiracy theories relating to the the ‘Whitewashing’ of Kemite culture; one of the most common is that European travellers deliberately removed the noses of statues in order to alter their appearance. I wrote my first post on this subject; debunking this particular myth, which risks distracting from embedded racist ideologies within the foundations of Egyptology as an academic discipline. The conspiracy to maintain an erroneous connection between ancient Egypt and non-African civilisations is much deeper than damaging statues.
The illustrations above are from Nott and Gliddon’s 1854 publication on ancient Egyptian monuments. In it, they argue on the basis of nothing but their own prejudice and supremacist ideologies that the people of Ancient Kemet were non African. Here rulers are described as “entirely Jewish” and the caption that accompanies the drawing of a statue of Rameses Usermaatre-setepenre reads:
His features are superbly European as Napoleon’s, whom he resembles.
I have taken the liberty of including an actual statue of the King below!
They continue with their racist ideologies throughout the book. And a summary of 3 out of 15 points in the book of their colleague Samuel Morton goes some way to explaining why these early authors were so keen to remove Egypt from Africa:
1.The valley of the Nile, both in Egypt and in Nubia, was originally peopled by a branch of the Caucasian race.
7.The Copts, in part at least, are a mixture of the Caucasian and the Negro in extremely variable proportions.
8.Negroes were numerous in Egypt but their social position in ancient times was the same that it now is, that of servants and slaves.
S.G. Morton, Crania Aegyptiaca, or, observations on Egyptian Ethnography, derived from anatomy, history and the monuments 1844: 65-66
Quite simply these writers were projecting their own distorted sense of the world upon the past.
Keeping up appearances…
Museums have a choice. They can either perpetuate the myths that were peddled by past scholars who belonged to a racist imperial past. Or, they forge ahead with a more appropriate presentation that shows the African origins of this ancient culture as well as the cultural diversity in the region across time. In actual fact in order to understand the history of Egypt you have to do just this.
This can be as simple as including a map of Africa and reminding people that Egypt is an African culture with indigenous African people as a population. The screen at Manchester Museum achieves this by situating Egypt in Africa.
I went on to discuss how identifying only certain figures from ancient Kemet as African was really no different to the categorisations of Nott, Gliddon and Morton above. At the British Museum only one room is explicitly linked to Africa; this is the room that contains material from the region of Nubia and which includes images like the tomb painting below that depict people from this region.
By making a distinction between people from the region of Nubia (ancient Kush) and Kemet, Egyptology erroneously implies that there is one ‘type’ of African person. Could the figure below not also be seen as a representation of an indigenous African person? I would suggest so on the grounds that her hair is textured and is a style that is not found outside of African cultures.
I have discussed possible solutions elsewhere on this blog. However, as I concluded in my lecture, until those who study Egyptology look more widely for cultural parallels and frameworks, it will continue to perpetuate a myth that engenders a divisive interpretation of the past. It feels odd to have to defend this culture as African, and yet in 2016 we are still having to do so.
As I noted in my last post, October is Black History Month in the UK. I knew that I would be busy travelling around the country giving talks, so I decided to tweet information and images relating to Kemet, rather than writing posts. I thought that I would write a little more about the image that received the most shares and responses.
On 11 October I tweeted the above image along with the name and date of the king and the simple statement:
The pigment and skin colours are original
The image comes from a temple at the site of Amada, in southern Egypt/Nubia. The temple was built in the 18th dynasty by King Thutmose Menkheperura, who ruled from around 1479-1425 BCE, and is one of the oldest surviving temples in this region. Further decorative reliefs were added by Thutmose’s successor: Amenhotep Aakheperure; and some restoration was carried out later by kings of the next dynasty. The temple is dedicated to two gods: Amun and Ra-Horakhty.
In the relief above, the king (right) is shown in a dynamic running pose, in his hands are wine jars. On his head he wears the crown of Lower Egypt/Kemet.
On the relief above the king stands in the centre and Djehuti (left) and Ra-Horakhty (right) pouring liquid in the form of the ankh sign over him, demonstrating his right to rule and his status and power as king. There are other ritual scenes on the walls of the temple. Below is a representation of the King in his role as head priest. He is accompanied by other priests who carry the barque that contained the image of the god. Note the animal skin garment that the head priest wears, he stands behind the king.
This small temple may not be impressive as some of the larger complexes in the southern parts of Kemet, however, the scenes enable us to understand more about the role of the king and his relationship to the gods. The pigment (colour) is incredibly well preserved in parts of the temple and show very clearly that the people represented had dark brown skin. There are scenes, such as the relief showing the later king Rameses Usermaatra-Setepenra, who presents an offering to a figure of Amun. The skin of Amun is painted black, and is used symbolically to represent fertility, and his consort is shown with gold-coloured skin representing her divinity. The king’s skin is dark brown, which we must conclude was close to its actual colour, as it was for other rulers on the temple’s reliefs.
So, October and Black History Month is almost approaching in the UK. It’s the one month where those of us who are interested in African, Black British and Caribbean heritage get to go access the history that we would like to see all year round!
As always, I will be giving lectures in a number of prisons, and one public lecture in London at the invitation of a friend and a much respected community Elder Mr Arthur Torrington CBE, (The Equiano Society).
Arthur has done a great deal of work for many years now to encourage museums in the UK to present Ancient Egypt as an African culture. This will be the third talk that I have given at the British Museum as a direct result of his efforts, and it is the fifth that he has organised in collaboration with the museum.
On Monday 24 October 2016 at 1.30pm I will be presenting a lecture at the British Museum: Kemet: African-centred approaches to Egyptology
The event is free but booking in necessary and can be made here
@kemetexpert will also be sharing images and information relating to Kemet on twitter throughout October.