Looking at Nubia in terms of itself Art review: In Egypt's shadow through much of its history, the land to the south had a distinctive culture and produced an important artistic legacy.

January 28, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Speak the name of Egypt, and myriad associations come to mind: the pyramids, the pharaohs, the sphinx, the hieroglyphics, the gold. Speak the name of ancient Nubia, Egypt's neighbor, and chances are nothing comes to mind.

That nothing reflects a major gap in our education, for between 3,000 B.C. and the first centuries A.D., precisely the period of Egypt's greatness, Nubia was an important presence in the ancient world. It had a well-developed civilization and an art which, though influenced by Egypt's, was independent and in some ways more creative. At times Nubia rivaled Egypt in power and, at one point, actually conquered and ruled Egypt for about 100 years.

This mysterious land is brought to light in "Ancient Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa," opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Wednesday. It's an exhibit of more than 300 works dating from about 3500 B.C. to 1000 A.D. From bracelets to bed legs, from swords and arrowheads to ceramics decorated with lively animals, these works shed light on this unknown land.

It is unknown, says the show's curator, David O'Connor, through no fault of its own but because of where it was: just south of Egypt along the Nile River, in what is now Sudan.

"When we look at the history of Nubia and its civilization," says O'Connor, "we look at it in terms of its great northern neighbor, Egypt, and Nubia tends to look somewhat peripheral, while it was in many ways different. What we have not done is looked at Nubia's historical civilization in its own terms. People who approached Central or South American civilizations didn't say, 'How do they compare with Greek or Egyptian?' They looked at '' them in their own terms."

O'Connor is now professor emeritus of the Egyptian section of the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, where this show comes from. Along with Boston and Toronto, O'Connor says, Penn has one of the finest collections of Nubian art in North America, the result of archaeological expeditions.

Nubia has not been explored as much archaeologically as Egypt, and as a result we cannot yet reconstruct its civilization as well as we can Egypt's. "In a way, the story of Nubia is similar to the story of African archaeology as a whole," O'Connor says. "It's an archaeologically under-represented part of the world."

Scholarly disagreement

But scholars know enough to come to some conclusions about Nubian civilization, and O'Connor says they have tended to come to the wrong ones. In the show's accompanying book, he acknowledges that most scholars think ancient Nubia was divided into small chiefdoms. But he disagrees.

"I propose instead," he writes, "that Nubian political systems were strongly centralized, covered large territories, and were akin to states and kingdoms, rather than chiefdoms." Their governing systems, O'Connor believes, covered territories in excess of 100,000 people. In other words, he argues, "Nubia had a civilization -- that is, was in 'an advanced stage of social development,' " according to the dictionary definition.

One of the reasons people have downplayed Nubia's importance is that for most of its history it didn't produce great tombs and monuments to its rulers on the scale of Egypt's. But their more modest tombs may represent a better allocation of resources.

"There is no tremendous, almost megalomaniacal focus on royal expression as in Egypt," says O'Connor. "Some people think the Egyptian resource system was off base and caused problems because of its tremendously wasteful focus."

If its tombs were smaller, Nubia's power often rivaled Egypt's, especially in the period after 1000 B.C. About 750 B.C., Nubia conquered Egypt and ruled it for about a century. This combined kingdom was "the largest state ever found along the lower [that is, northern] Nile in ancient and medieval times," O'Connor notes.

In terms of creativity, the curator says, "There is a distinctly Nubian kind of art. They took a veneer of Egyptian style but added to it basic things they were trying to express that were Nubian." As an example, he cites funerary statues of the period 100 B.C. to 300 A.D., represented in the show by a sandstone head with sun disc. "These statues had wings running down their backs," O'Connor says. "Egyptians represent a dead person as a bird with a human head. Nubians represent them as human beings with wings. That relates to some basic idea of their own of the afterlife, which is different from the Egyptian. It's not meaningless copying of Egyptian art."

Funerary portrait

Another sculpture, a funerary figure of King Taharka (690-664 B.C.), one of the Nubian kings who ruled Egypt, also reflects Nubian artistic creativity. "Even though it's a kind of standardized Egyptian representation," O'Connor says, "it's got a very distinctive face carved on it. It's pretty close to being a portrait of a person, whereas Egyptian art reduces things to an ideal form."

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