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I was very excited to see a Nubia exhibit at the Boston MFA. The many lovely Sudanese objects that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts bought from British colonial occupiers in the 19th century mostly live in the museum’s storerooms and nobody sees them. Of course they should be on permanent exhibit, or better yet, returned to Sudan to be on exhibit there. Showing them in this temporary exhibit is … better than nothing.

History of Kerma and Meroe

I always love when pottery is conceptualized in terms of bodies

Early Egyptian pottery

I ended up feeling, as one so often does, that I was visiting these lovely objects in prison, as it were, through no fault of their own. The objects themselves are wonderful, and if you can you should go see them. But the presentation left me once again wishing I could put together my own audio tour of the exhibition for people to use instead of reading the cards.

What am I complaining about? The museum clearly had made some attempt to acknowledge colonialism, to engage black scholars and Sudanese people to talk about the finds, and to acknowledge the complicated and often racist relationship between Egypt and Sudan.

A small cup from Meroe, maybe the loveliest thing I saw, but then I’m a sucker for pottery.

Yet the word “Sudan” – the name of the modern country – was only mentioned very occasionally. “Africa” was also not much mentioned, or “black”. Surely the main interest of the show for most casual visitors must be to see that black people were building palaces, making art, trading with their neighbors, and conquering Egypt thousands of years ago? But instead we got a lengthy and patronizing explanation of how the rich 19th c. Bostonian pleasure traveler John Lowell was so wealthy that local Sudanese people “thought he was a pasha.” And in the same room, we got videos of modern Sudanese people actually doing the work of excavation, but without being interviewed or even named.

Sudan and colonization

Other patronizing thoughts could be glimpsed on other cards: the comment on the shawabtis, that Sudanese rulers were buried with an unreasonable number of them compared to Egyptians, gave me the uneasy feeling that the exhibit was associating restraint and self-control with lighter skin.

This is also a kingdom that was ruled by women for generations, and surely at least half the people visiting the exhibit would have been interested to hear what we know about these women? But again, though the queens and their victory over the Romans were briefly acknowledged, there was nothing to indicate that women were generally less oppressed and more powerful in sub-Saharan Africa.

A single gazelle skin, skillfully slit to make a mesh skirt.

You might also have gotten the impression from the exhibit that the people of Sudan traded mainly with Egypt, and mainly sent raw materials – especially gold and ivory – north in exchange for finished goods – blue faience, especially. But Sudan also exported granite (as New England does today) and basalt for grindstones, and a good many enslaved people. And they worked as mercenaries in the Egyptian army.

model of black men marching carrying bows and arrows

Nubian archers in the Middle Kingdom (from the Nubian museum in Aswan, Egypt)

The people of Sudan also traded with other Africans south of the Sahara, a fact that was just barely mentioned in the exhibit. They probably acquired the people they sold into slavery in this way, and they also probably traded for dried fish, exotic skins and furs, mica, salt, and copper. In general, the MFA admitted only trade in luxuries, without mentioning the ancient trade in commodities that is increasingly admitted by archaeologists.

There were also objects missing that I would have liked to see: the world’s oldest known feather fans, for example, made from ostrich feathers and found at Kush, are somewhere in the MFA’s storeroom but did not appear in this exhibit. This would have emphasized how the culture of Sudan was not derivative of Egypt’s. They might also have mentioned, but did not, that donkeys, essential to trade between Sudan and Egypt, were domesticated in Sudan.

History of donkeys
History of fans

A feather fan found at Kush, now in the MFA Boston

I could also live without the dramatic lighting, reminiscent of the “Darkest Africa” theme of the Quai Branly museum in Paris, which has been widely criticized. Nothing on display here needed the protection of low lighting, and the association should have been avoided.

All that said, there were plenty of beautiful objects to visit, and I was glad to have the opportunity to see them. There were lovely copper flutes (with a reconstruction and a recording of someone playing them!), and stone offering tables, extremely skilled gold jewelry (made in Sudan, as well as some imported from Egypt) and stunning huge alabaster vases. If you have the chance to go, you certainly should. It will be in Boston until mid-January, and there are plans for a traveling exhibition after that.