At the Pan African Art Studio in Long Beach, artist and art historian Akinsanya Dawud Kambon teaches inner-city youths about the culture and history of Africa. He does much of that through discussions of the continent’s art, because it encompasses all aspects of society in a way that most Western art does not.
Kambon recently took a group of his students to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana to tour an exhibit of items from the Tishman Collection. Seeing great works of African art was a revelation to many of the students, he said; the depth of their reaction was a revelation to him.
“One of the things that really impressed me about the kids is that they were so inspired after seeing the Tishman Collection,” Kambon said. “It’s really refreshing for me. You take a lot of kids with no hope, and they can identify with this work. They have more of a will to live and a will to succeed than they did before.”
Building the self-worth of disenfranchised youth by educating them about the richness of their culture is a movement that’s been growing in recent years, but not without meeting resistance--witness the debate over Afrocentrism in school curricula.
“Public schools, they give history the same way they’ve been doing it for 30, 40 years,” Kambon said. “It doesn’t do justice to people of color.”
Concurrent with the rise of Afrocentrist thought--and sometimes tied to it directly--has been a new scholarly interest in African civilizations. Sometimes this has led to a major re-evaluation of past views, as has been the case with the ancient Nile civilization of Nubia, Egypt’s neighbor to the south.
“Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa,” a traveling exhibition opening today at the Bowers, is one of the fruits of the burgeoning scholarly interest. When it opened at the University of Pennsylvania in 1992, it was part of a confluence of museum exhibits about the region.
Also opening in 1992 was a permanent display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and a long-term exhibit at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. Another permanent installation opened in 1991 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The Nubia show at the Bowers is the only traveling show, and this is its only West Coast stop.
Emily Teeter, assistant curator of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute, said the confluence of Nubia shows results from several factors.
Huge archeological salvage operations in the mid-1960s, conducted before the completion of the Aswan High Dam inundated many sites, resulted in staggering volumes of material that have only now been completely catalogued and appraised.
“We finally know enough about the materials to be able to put them out,” she said.
But also, “There’s certainly a new interest in African culture” among the public, she said. In fact, the show in Chicago has been so popular that the closing date was extended from last September to Dec. 31 of this year.
“It’s a really interesting history, which virtually nobody knew about,” Teeter said. The show has drawn a diverse audience, and reaction among African Americans has been particularly encouraging. “Many people ask, ‘Why weren’t we taught about this?’ It’s a glorious, wonderful civilization.”
The Nubia show at the Bowers will make nine stops in all, traveling through 1996.
“I think that the exhibit is making the public aware of Nubian civilization and culture in a way that wasn’t possible before, unless you happened to live near one of the big permanent collections,” O’Connor said. “This the most impressive way people can learn about (Nubia). It just makes a very tremendous impression that can’t be equaled by even the most beautifully illustrated art book.”
By viewing the works, he added, “you realize that you’re looking at a very different culture than Egypt,” which has often overshadowed scholarly and public appreciation of Nubian culture. O’Connor is curator-in-charge of the Egyptian Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and a professor of Egyptology.
Stretching for almost 900 miles in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan, Nubia was long seen by scholars as peripheral to ancient Egyptian civilization, dependent on it for cultural stimulation and inferior to it in political organization.
The “Ancient Nubia” show “emphasizes the fact that civilizations were flourishing in sub-Saharan Africa, and those civilizations were on a par with anything in the north,” said Armand Labbe, director of research and collections and chief curator for the Bowers.
Bringing the exhibit to the Bowers is “in line with our long-range plans to expose people to the totality of African cultures,” Labbe said. “We can only do it a piece at a time, but this is an important piece of the puzzle.”
Scholars are now finding that Nubia had a much more sophisticated culture than was earlier presumed and deserves to be evaluated as a civilization on its own terms.
“Ancient Nubia” supports that view by exhibiting exquisite objects from more than 3,500 years of history, reaching back to the early Bronze Age (about 3,100 BC), up through the collapse of the Meroitic empire in about AD 400 and the Nubian people’s subsequent conversion to early Christianity.
There are a number of factors coloring earlier views of Nubian culture. The region is remote and not as well-explored as Egypt, for one.
“When you’re talking about ancient Nubia, Egyptologists tended to take their view from ancient Egyptian literature, which tends to depict all other civilizations as dependent on Egypt,” O’Connor said.
But there was an implicit racism at work as well. Even academics, after all, are a product of their time and circumstance.
“For quite a long time, scholars tended to think that Africa couldn’t really produce substantial civilization or substantial culture,” O’Connor said.
By that reasoning, Egypt was seen as more of a Mediterranean culture than an African one. In fact, however, there were influences running north and south between Nubia and Egypt throughout the development of both cultures. Although his claims are controversial, University of Chicago Nubia specialist Bruce Williams even believes that the institution of kingship developed first in Nubia.
“Places like Nubia were kind of a halfway house between Egyptian and sub-Saharan culture,” said Joseph Nevadomsky, an anthropology professor and Africa specialist at Cal State Fullerton. Africa, he said, is finally being recognized “as the source of some sophisticated ideas and notions.”
In the past, most attention to Africa has focused on so-called “primitive” African cultures, including hunting and gathering societies (the !Kung bushmen and Pygmies), and pastoralist cattle cultures (such as the Masai).
As a result, African societies were thought of as “somehow devoid of any contributions to material culture,” Nevadomsky said. “This (exhibit) is an attempt to look a little bit behind that.”
Old notions die hard, though. Nevadomsky recently lived for a year in Zimbabwe, site of another great civilization that produced elaborate stone structures (including the Great Zimbabwe).
For centuries, there were a number of theories as to their origin, but up until the time of independence for the former Rhodesia, scholars who proposed that the structures were built by Africans were ostracized by the government.
One of Nevadomsky’s white neighbors in Zimbabwe still refused to believe (as historians now do) that the structures were African; he preferred to think they were built by space aliens.
That the evolution of scholarly thought on Africa is now resulting in more museum shows is wonderful news to Kambon, as it gives him more ways to expose his students to the newly appreciated richness of African culture.
“I’m definitely encouraged,” said Kambon, who also teaches African art history through UC Irvine Extension.
Such exhibits, he said, provide a real connection that is otherwise elusive. “You can find (the art) in books, but it’s a lot more African, and a lot more interesting, when you can see the real thing.”
* “Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa,” opens today and continues through Aug. 15 at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St. in Santa Ana. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Thursdays until 9 p.m.). Admission is $4.50 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, $1.50 for children age 5 to 12 (under 5 free). (714) 567-3600.