The Met Explores Africa’s Lasting Impact On the Mediterranean World

Despite some shortcomings, “Africa & Byzantium” successfully showcases the connections, influences and relationships between Constantinople and Africa's rich, vibrant provinces and communities.

A display of manuscripts in the Met’s “Africa & Byzantium” show. Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen, courtesy of The Met

In the 14th Century, Ibn Battuta left his native Tangiers to travel the world all the way to China, becoming one of the greatest explorers of all time. When he set foot in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, he befriended a member of the imperial family, eventually meeting Emperor Andronicus directly. After an exchange of niceties and Ibn Battuta’s travel tales, Andronicus welcomed his guest by offering the Muslim traveler an honorific robe. “Honor this man and ensure his safety,” the emperor instructs his sons.

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In his diaries, Ibn Battuta recounts his visit to the city, equating Christian monasteries constructed in “marble and mosaic work” with Islamic edifices and places of worship, before leaving Constantinople after several weeks onward to Central Asia. This evocative scene attests to regular, significant and mutually enriching multicultural interactions, an intermixing that Andrea Achi, Mary and Michael Jaharis Associate Curator of Byzantine Art at the Metropolitan Museum, stages in “Africa & Byzantium,” a show of nearly 200 art objects from modern-day Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

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Spanning the Late Antiquity to 18th-19th Century, the artefacts are remnants of the connections, influences and relationships between Constantinople and rich, vibrant provinces and communities, which have often been overlooked, understudied or minimized in dominant narratives and historiographies. By shedding light on them, “Africa & Byzantium” stretches a larger intellectual canvas for us to consider Africa’s role and contribution to world-shaping events, regimes and phenomena.

Textile Fragment with Artemis and Actaeon, Byzantine (Akhmim, Egypt), 5th-7th Century. © Trustees of the British Museum

The show follows a chronological and geographical course more than a thematic one. The visitor moves “westward” from the Roman-era province of Africa Proconsularis (Tunisia) to the afterglow of the fallen Byzantine empire through the 19th Century via Ethiopian art objects, ending with contemporary reflections and artworks from multidisciplinary artist Tsedaye Makonnen. Objects are ornamental, devotional and practical. They include mosaics, textiles, paintings, manuscripts, scrolls and more, outstandingly preserved. Of note, the stunning mosaics from Hammam Lif in Tunisia which recall its Jewish community, Coptic liturgical texts, shrouds and other magnificent textiles from Byzantine Egypt, as well as polychromatic Ethiopian paintings of Christian iconography, many of which are invaluable treasures and sacred to their communities of origin.

The show wants to underscore the relationality of Constantinople and “Africa” as well as interrogate how the Byzantine Empire can be conceptualized beyond conventional dating. Historians typically accept 330 as the establishment date of Constantinople on the site of Byzantium, as the Roman Empire’s new capital. Under Emperor Constantine’s impulse, Christianity gradually rose to the ranks of a favored faith. The Roman Empire was subsequently split between west and east and when Rome, capital of the western empire, fell, Constantinople’s political and cultural ascent only grew. At its zenith, the Byzantine Empire reigned over territories once stretching from the northern tip of Morocco to northern Nubia, until its own decline and fall in 1453 to Ottoman leader Mehmed II.

An installation view of the Met’s “Africa & Byzantium” show. Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen, courtesy of The Met

“History does not stop at a particular date or border,” wrote Achi in the (excellent) accompanying catalogue gathering texts from many scholars. This intention brings us to a daunting question with regard to the show’s title and ambition. How does a continent relate to a world-city over more than one thousand years then? The curator adopted the lens of global history applied to a delineated space to question Eurocentricity and rethink spatialities. This is achieved via spotlights, ruptures, and continuities, which works rather well given the gigantic breadth of the subject matter.

However, purists who would resist expanding the realm of periodization would note that a large part of the show falls “outside” the Byzantine Empire and that Byzantium as a city would rather refer to pre-Late Antiquity before it became Constantinople, rather than the name being a reference point reverberating through the industrial age (the adoption of the term “Byzantine Empire” was also largely shaped by Western historians since the 16th Century). While I’m usually supportive of daring propositions (Byzantium as an idea), I, too, found choices and placements occasionally shoehorned, starting with the centerpiece image of the show, which is a mosaic panel from 2nd-century Roman Carthage.

Mamluk engraved brass trays were used in Lalibela, an Ethiopian Christian site of great significance. Pigments capture the thriving trade and commerce connecting these provinces with others, such as in the Ethiopian wall paintings that include vermillion, orpiment (yellow), red lead (orange) and smalt (blue). The show convincingly establishes the relational quality between these spaces, yet for all of the suggested horizontality, we’re missing the equally important notion of verticality—power.

Bust of an African Child, Roman, 2nd-3rd Century C.E., from the RISD Museum. Photo: Erika Gould

Is the ampersand in “African & Byzantium” a link, an addition? Empires are made of centers and peripheries. Their relationship is one of domination and submission, reverence and jealousy—not of equals. Diversity does not mean a lack of hierarchy, and I yearned for a critical discussion on this topic and more display on those power dynamics, how the provinces negotiated them and how they may have shifted through time. Further, by blurring the lines of what is Byzantine, the show insufficiently differentiates between encounters and conquered lands, provinces and peripheral kingdoms (the Aksumite Empire was not formally part of the Byzantine Empire), a dynamic and evolving context that nonetheless dictates the reception of Byzantium/Constantinople in these territories.

By placing Africa before Byzantium, one would imagine engaging not only in the ways that Byzantium (or, more aptly given the historical period covered, Constantinople) influenced faith, art and culture in Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan but rather the reverse. How African or Africanized was Byzantium/Constantinople, we wonder, given that the Roman Empire was a known cultural integrator, assimilating other cultures into its folds. For example, Egyptian and Syrian deities were once worshipped in Rome by Romans. This question is left suspended as far fewer artefacts from Constantinople are included in the show, an imbalance that points to the challenge of fully shaking up dominant views and cultural hegemonies. We end up knowing much more about the rise of Christianity in Africa than reimagining African people and culture in Constantinople itself.

Despite these shortcomings, the show brilliantly succeeds in several ways. First, it charts a new vision against orthodoxies, to consider historical collections and loans other than in their usual fragmented dislocation between several departments and galleries like the shattered pieces of ostraca. It would ordinarily take a visit to the ancient Egyptian galleries to view the stunning Fayyum Oasis encaustic portraits, to the Byzantine art galleries for manuscripts and liturgical objects and so on. Achi rightly points out the way that encyclopedic museums artificially impose a non-neutral view on our reading of history. Second, the dialogue between historical and contemporary art is a fantastic one for the Met Museum to continue championing, even if Tsedaye Makonnen’s installations and Theo Eshetu’s multichannel videos have little to do with Byzantium/Constantinople per se (with a shift in tone and subject that can be either pleasantly refreshing or quite jarring). Third, the rarity and beauty of art objects gathered stimulate immediate awe and curiosity for cultures visitors may not often interact with. It’s the strength (if not responsibility) of large institutions like the Met to shift conversations in ways that don’t reduce Africa to areas below the Sahara Desert or ceremonial masks, and I fully encourage the museum to continue shepherding such generous inquiry. Fourth, by their sacred nature, some of the objects deeply resonate with the identity and living culture of descendants today, such as the Coptic minority in Egypt residing in the tri-state area and beyond. It’s also great to know that Achi made a conscious effort to involve community members in the project.

“I confess that the exhibition brought me to tears. One of the artefacts hails from one of my favorite monasteries, Deir El Suryan, an ancient and still operating monastery I have visited often but where I would never have seen this manuscript because it is otherwise kept at the Vatican Library and on loan to the Met for this exhibition,” wrote Phoebe Farag Mikhail in response to the show on her blog.

Mosaic with Lion, Hammam Lif, Tunisia, 6th Century C.E. Brooklyn Museum, New York, Museum Collection Fund

I was moved when admiring one of the mosaics violently extracted from my family’s hometown. The depicted lion reminded me of the tales surrounding the North African lion, once abundant in the region. The flowers evoked the garden of my aunt and the care she puts into her roses and citrus trees. And the multifaith objects record a society I’d like to imagine as less hopeless than today. I left the show energized by the questions it raises on identity, belonging and external qualifiers, basking in the radiance of secular and sacred splendor. I echo the impression a visitor shared with me: “I don’t know when I will see these ever again in my lifetime.”

Africa & Byzantium” is on show at the Metropolitan Museum through March 3.

The Met Explores Africa’s Lasting Impact On the Mediterranean World