This weekend marks the beginning of a major new exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Africa & Byzantium will present nearly 200 artworks, including many that have never before been exhibited in the United States.
On view from November 19, 2023, through March 3, 2024, Africa & Byzantium will showcase nearly 200 works that will explore the tradition of Byzantine art and culture in North and East Africa from the 4th through the 15th century and beyond. Even though Byzantium was a vast empire that spanned parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia, its extensive connections to Africa have previously been understudied. Bringing together art, religion, literature, history, and archaeology, this innovative exhibition will highlight artworks from the multicultural communities of northern and eastern Africa.
The exhibition focuses on the art from the centuries when much of North Africa was ruled by the Byzantine Empire from its capital in Constantinople and when early Christianity developed in kingdoms on the horn of Africa (the fourth to the seventh century CE). It also addresses the distinctive religious and artistic traditions that flourished in Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia (the 8th to the 15th century CE). Faith, politics, and commerce across land and sea linked these traditions to Byzantium, resulting in a lively interchange of arts and beliefs. Objects in the exhibition span almost two thousand years with a range of media, from monumental frescoes, mosaics, panel paintings, and metalwork, to jewelry, ceramics, and illuminated manuscripts.
“This stunning exhibition brings new focus and scholarship to an understudied field, expanding our knowledge of Byzantine and Early Christian Art within an expansive worldview,” said Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and CEO. “Through spectacular and widely unknown works of art, Africa & Byzantium illuminates the development, continuity, and adaptation of Byzantine art and culture in North Africa and the Horn of Africa, recentering African artistic contributions to the pre-modern period.”
Africa & Byzantium traces three artistic arcs. From the fourth to the seventh century, early Byzantine visual and intellectual culture was shaped by wealthy patrons, artists, and religious leaders in northern Africa. From the eighth century to the sixteenth century, distinctive Christian religious and artistic traditions flourished in African Kingdoms, and finally, from the seventeenth century to the twentieth century, Ethiopian and Coptic artists in eastern Africa found inspiration in Roman and Byzantine Art. The vibrant and inspiring art displayed throughout the exhibition will culminate with a trio of contemporary works, which bring alive themes of translation, circulation, and memory, raising critical questions about where and when Byzantium “ends.”
The second part of the exhibition reveals the ways in which northern and eastern African artists used imagery to interact with different identities, such as the continued development and expansion of the distinctive local forms of Christianity and Christian art in the region. The anchor of this section will be monumental medieval Nubian wall paintings. Medieval Nubians moved in multiple cultural worlds; in addition to their indigenous language, many of the elites were fluent in Greek, Coptic (Egyptian), and, later, Arabic. Nubian material and visual culture were equally complex. The exhibition will feature representations of Nubian bishops and dignitaries from the Great Cathedral of Faras, which is currently submerged in the Nile. Other highlights will be rarely-seen loans from the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine’s at Sinai, exceptional Coptic manuscripts and icons, and Ethiopian icons that juxtapose artistic styles from the Mediterranean, Western Europe, and Eastern Africa. The section reflects on systems of periodization and explores the questions: where and when does Byzantium end?
The third part of the exhibition addresses Byzantium’s continued legacy in Africa and explores the ways in which artists of African descent continue to find inspiration in Roman and Byzantine traditions. The re-translations and memories of Byzantine art continue to resonate from the medieval period to today. Legacies features contemporary artworks that reflect on and connect to earlier traditions. Contemporary artists, including Tsedaye Makonnen and Theo Eshetu, engage with the past and challenge how historical and environmental changes complicate the interpretation of medieval arts and architecture in the region. Above all, the exhibition intends to challenge the conventional understanding of the separateness of Byzantium and Africa and to launch the next generation of scholarship on the intertwined worlds of Byzantine and African art.
The exhbition is organized by Andrea Achi an Associate Curator of Byzantine Art for The Met. She explains, “Africa & Byzantium builds upon the long legacy of The Met’s award-winning Byzantine exhibitions. Bringing together new research from over forty scholars worldwide, the exhibition addresses how diverse communities connected to Byzantium flourished in African empires and kingdoms for over a thousand years. It will broaden public understanding of the Byzantine world, its reach, and transcultural authority and examine the critical role of early African Christian civilizations in this creative sphere.”
To learn more about this exhibition, please visit The Met’s website.
Top Image: Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen, courtesy of The Met