Current scholarship generally acknowledges that art does not exist in
a vacuum. Rather, art is an expression of the culture which creates
it, revealing common beliefs, aspirations, and feelings. Within the
vein of "cultural art history" the true nature of ancient Egypt has
become the focus of much questioning. Much has been said regarding
this ancient civilization within the context of the continent of
Africa. The focus has not been merely geographic—although some
scholars contend that the physical location of Egypt has been all but
overlooked. At the core of this controversy is the issue of ethnicity
and culture. What was the identity of the people who built and
populated ancient Egypt?1
Many scholars decry the separation of Egyptology from the study of
sub-Saharan, so-called "black" Africa. Others continue to uphold a
view of Egypt as an essentially "white" society and thus the basis of
Western culture. No matter the outcome, this dialogue has led to a
fruitful re-examination of the past, as well as a greater
understanding of the art and culture of Egypt. While we cannot be
certain of the ancient Egyptian skin tone, we have come to recognize
the fundamental nature of a people who perceived their world as
consisting of more than a physical reality.
In order to understand Egypt, we must recognize that Egyptian art is
primarily conceptual and symbolic in nature, serving to encode
cultural information. Symbolism pervades all aspects of Egyptian art
from method to material.2 The seemingly regimented system of symbolism
was a means of interpreting life from the Creation to the Afterlife,
as well as the perpetual struggle between creative and destructive
For a more complete understanding of Egyptian art, it is helpful to
consider the concepts which defined the culture and shaped their
world. In the Egyptian cosmic view there existed before all else a
state termed Nun, which can be likened to the primordial ocean, the
infinite source of all creation. The Nun represented the indefinable
and inherently unknowable, that which was beyond human reckoning. It
was imagined as "a swampy mire, a seething primal cradle in which
lived four couples of serpents and frogs" whose names translate as
‘the initial waters,’ ‘inertia,’ ‘spatial infinity,’ ‘the darkness,’
and ‘That which is hidden.’"3
It was from the Nun that the Supreme Being wa...
... middle of paper ...
...Egypt, London, Thames
and Hudson, 1993.
Foster, John L., trans. Love Songs of the New Kingdom, New York,
Hart, George. The Legendary Past: Egyptian Myths, Austin, British
Museum Publications University of Texas Press, 1990.
Wilkinson, Richard H. Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art, London, Thames
and Hudson, 1994.
Crawford, Clinton. Recasting Ancient Egypt in the African Context:
Toward a Model Curriculum Using Art and Language, Trenton, New Jersey,
Africa World Press, Inc., 1996.
Kagan, Donald. "Stealing History: Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism
Became An Excuse To Teach Myth: Review," The New Criterion, v. 14,
March 1996: 54-59.
Lehuard, Raoul. "Egypt in Africa," Arts d’Afrique Noire, no. 103,
Autumn 1997: 54-59.
Mertz, Barbara. Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, New
York, Dodd, Mead, 1978.
Noguera, Anthony. How African Was Egypt? A Comparative Study of
Ancient Egyptian and Black African Cultures, New York, Washington,
Atlanta, Hollywood, Vantage Press, 1976.
Wright, William. "The Whitewash of Egypt: Identifying Egypt and Nubia
Separation of Ancient Egypt from the Rest of Africa," African Arts, v.
27, Autumn ’94: 10+.
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