Curating in colour

Seeing Blackness in post-18th century Greco-Roman collecting culture

Our understanding of ethnic diversity within the classical world owes much to how museums have curated their Greco-Roman antiquities. These collections were strongly influenced by the interests and values of the original collectors themselves, many of whom were antiquarians living and working in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This article raises the question of whether their traditions have had an impact on how we understand and curate Black bodies in Greco-Roman galleries today.

Rheba Macha

“I don’t see colour.”

As a woman of Black and white parentage who has spent most of her life living in Northern England, this is a phrase that I have heard in a variety of different forms over the course of my lifetime. On the surface it seems forward-thinking and benign: what harm could there be in the belief that we are all the same, or that colour has no impact in the way we view another person?

The uncomfortable truth is that the harm it does perpetuate is a subtle, insidious thing, the lasting impact of which can be much more difficult to unravel than the obvious racism of white supremacist beliefs. When we deny the impact of skin colour in the lives of our friends, relatives, and ancestors, we not only deny them the most immediately recognisable ties to their heritage, but we remove our own responsibility to evaluate how our beliefs about race have been shaped.

This extends beyond the personal and into our institutions of education, which are in many ways responsible for the way we understand ourselves and our history in relation to the rest of the world. For those of us in western Europe the visual language of classical antiquity plays a significant role in our understanding of nation, heritage, and history, and my area of academic interest lies in where Black bodies intersect with this tradition.

For centuries, Western Europeans have collected Greco-Roman material for private and public display, where it has been used as both a status symbol and as a shared visual language of social identity through which could be communicated the values tied to the physical, political, and social ideals perceived within the pieces.

It is not controversial to state that by the eighteenth century, the art of collecting was well established within the realm of white men, whose wealth and status supported them in their pursuit of their collections (Scott 2003, pp. 53). It follows that the narratives explored by these collections were those of whiteness as well — the result of which married the splendour of the ancient past with the values, ideals, and status of the contemporary white elite.

What happens, then, when we begin to look for representations of Black people in the ancient world? Where do we find them, and what do they look like in these collections? How do we understand their place within an ancient civilization that has been fashioned as the inherited legacy of white people?

These are all questions that I am exploring with my doctoral research, an overview of which I will present with this article. It is my aim to see colour — Blackness in particular — and explore how Black bodies have been received – i.e., understood and used – in collections of antiquities across recent centuries.

Black-figured amphora. On the reverse, shown here, is a warrior with two black attendants. The obverse shows Achilles slaying the Amazon queen Penthesileia. Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum.

Greco-Roman antiquities were being collected on the continent long before it became fashionable in the United Kingdom, although by the 1770s the English aristocracy were the principal buyers of ancient marble sculpture (Adams 2009, p. 67, as cited in Clarke and Penny 1982, p. 65).

These collectors were following the Italian tradition of decorating the house with ancient “princely commodities” to bolster family splendor, but as antiquities became more widely available over the seventeenth century, the purpose of collecting shifted towards fashionable decoration and easily recognizable status symbols for one’s country house (Scott, 2003, p. 115).

The major eighteenth century collections of Greco-Roman art – such as those of Charles Townley (1737-1805), Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803), and Sir John Soane (1753-1837) – not only set the standards of collecting culture going forwards, but informed other collectors of the type of artwork considered worthy of display. Before we can begin looking for where Black bodies do or do not show up in these collections, it is important to consider the kind of value that was assigned to Black people at the time.

From at least the seventeenth century, Black people were understood as physiologically different from white people in a variety of troubling ways: not only was their skin and hair different, but Black people were considered incapable of basic intellect, reason, and even historical memory (Curran 2011, p. 118).

By the eighteenth century this fascination with “Blackness” led whites to look for its “cause”. This eventually extended to the point where the Academie royale des sciences de Bordeaux offered a prize for the best essay discussing what “caused” the Black traits in Black people.

The question itself was posed thusly: “What is the physical cause of nègres colour, of the quality of their hair, and of the degeneration of the one and of the other? (Curran 2011, p. 2).” It is here that we begin to see real moves towards human categorisation and race science – a field of study that involved no small amount of experimentation on Black people – which would emerge more fully in the mid-nineteenth century.

This indicates a racist preoccupation with anatomical differences between white and Black people, the latter of whom were defined exclusively in terms of their alleged intellectual inferiority and “otherness.” I use the term “other” to describe the way in which one society may highlight the features of another as reprehensibly different – often portraying its people and practices as strange, barbaric, and uncivilized – to help to further define and justify its own feelings of superiority.

The focus on otherness is perhaps most strongly evidenced by the rise of touring “freak shows” that objectified Black people as human exhibitions: such as Saartjie Baartman, who was brought to London from South Africa in 1810.

Whole-length portrait of Saartjie Baartman, naked but for decorations. 1810 Aquatint with etching, printed in brown ink. Image: The Trustees of the British Museum.

The result of this was the normalisation of viewing Black bodies – particularly Black bodies that very obviously did not conform to European bodily conventions – through the lens of derogatory entertainment. This would not have seemed particularly controversial at the time: we must remember that by the nineteenth century images of white Europeans were being modelled on classical sculpture, where images of Black people were shown to be exaggerated caricatures that seemed more like chimpanzees and gorillas than human (Saini, 2019, pp. 52). The scientific dehumanization of Black people throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made it acceptable for women like Saartjie to be ogled for the price of a ticket – her value one of scientific entertainment until her death in 1815.

Antiquities depicting Black bodies are often understood as having been deployed for entertainment value in the ancient world as well: for example, as novelty items brought out for use in the symposium where spectacle and laughter were the intent. Greek “head-vases” in the form of Black Africans are commonly used to illustrate this phenomenon (see the featured image at the top of this article).

It is argued that their purpose was either to represent Black people in a servile role (e.g., wine-pourers), or to present the drinker with a suitably Dionysian type of “other” while enjoying an equally Dionysian evening (Lissarrague 1995, pp. 6). The implication in such interpretations is clear: that Black people in the ancient world, much like black people in the eighteenth century, were widely understood in the context of exotic slavery.

The parallels between the alleged ancient reception of Black people in antiquity and the reception of Black people in the early days of antiquarianism raise the question of chronology: did the ancient viewer simply consider the Black body a slave novelty, or do we need to consider whether the opinions and values of early collectors have played a part in the way we understand Black bodies in the ancient world today? Is it possible to trace when collections began grouping Black people this way? Could this have been informed by (and gone on to perpetuate) contemporary racist thinking?

In order to begin answering these questions I had to devise a way to systematically search for Black bodies within Greco-Roman collections, which led to the formation of an initial pilot study that I conducted towards the end of 2020. My first step was to build a database of representations of Black bodies in Greco-Roman art. In order to gather my data, I first needed to specify my visual criteria for identifying a figure as Black, which has required me to put together a taxonomy of physical features to use to identify Black people.

It is incredibly important to acknowledge that there is a certain circularity in beginning my research this way: to examine the way the original collectors othered Black bodies, I myself must look for traits of otherness that have traditionally been used to identify Blackness (e.g. tight coils of hair, broad nose, thick lips). While it is widely thought that representations of Black people in Greco-Roman art tend towards caricature (Jenkins and Turner 2015, pp. 214), I also intend to seek out ambiguous cases where othering is not so obvious, in order to assess the range of othering practiced in Greco-Roman art.

What follows is an example of how I am conducting my work, as well as a demonstration of the way I intend to use individual pieces to both raise and answer my research questions. As the first national museum of the world – not to mention the institution most closely tied to the beginning of antiquarian collecting culture – the British Museum seemed an appropriate institution to use for my pilot study.

While searching their online catalogue I discovered piece of sculpture – incidentally, from Charles Townley’s eighteenth century collection – described as a “marble figure of an acrobat on a crocodile.” It stands at 75cm in height and is currently understood as an “entertaining” piece – perhaps even a table ornament that once belonged to a wealthy Greek household (Jenkins & Turner eds., 2015, pp. 213).

Further investigation revealed this piece to be quite popular: over the last eight years it has been included in three major international exhibits, and represents what we would call a typical “Nilotic scene.” This is visual imagery that usually focuses on Black people interacting with the natural world surrounding the Nile.

Marble figure of an African balancing on a crocodile, with modern restorations. Photo: The Trustees of the British Museum.

In 2013 the acrobat was displayed as part of “Cleopatra: Rome and the Magic of Egypt” at the Chiostro del Bramante in Rome; in 2015 as part of “Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art” at the British Museum in London, then again in 2018 as part of “Egypt-Greece-Rome: Cultures in Contact” at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles.

These are leading cultural institutions that attract massive audiences to their exhibitions, which means they are generally expected to offer an incredibly high standard of curation. With this in mind, I have initially tried to answer a relatively simple question: what is it that has made this piece so attractive to multiple international exhibits?

The subject is perhaps the most immediately obvious factor. It is a whimsical piece that is exciting to look at from every angle: the potential danger from the crocodile and impressive athleticism of the acrobat are visually engaging, and it is likely even viewers familiar with classical art and archaeology would pause to take a closer look. There is also the fact that it is expertly crafted in white marble. The colour is stark and striking, the craftsmanship is excellent, and the marble’s quick evocation of classical antiquity gives it a temporal location.

What makes it pertinent to my research, however, is that it is all of those things while also representing the traits of otherness that have traditionally indicated Blackness. The tight corkscrews of hair, broad nose, thick lips, and large buttocks are all physical indicators of Blackness, to the point where even in the absence of paintwork this white-marble figure could not be mistaken for a white person. If nothing else this is at least a starting point: it is a reasonably sized, well-crafted, unquestionably Black person, which likely makes it a desirable piece for exhibitions looking to showcase ethnic diversity in material from this period.

My next step will be to explore how this body’s Blackness has been used within the context of themed exhibitions, and what its inclusion in those exhibitions is intended to convey. For example, what role did it play in the narrative of the relationship between Rome and Egypt in Cleopatra? What kind of beauty was this representation of Blackness intended to convey to the viewer in Defining Beauty? Furthermore, how often has it been exhibited as a piece intended to specifically showcase beauty as opposed to playful entertainment?

The question of how Blackness has been received by collectors, curators, and the public is extraordinarily large, and it has not been my intent to try and offer any concrete answers at such an early stage in my research. Instead, it is my hope that by writing this article I have been able to provoke thought and raise questions, as well as prompt a little reconsideration of how we have come to understand Black bodies in the ancient world.

Antiquities do not simply appear in our museums and galleries; there has always been a person (or a group of people) making choices as to which pieces appear in which collections. There has always been a reason for that choice, even if it does not seem immediately apparent, and those choices will go on to shape the viewer’s understanding of a people, a place, or a moment in time.

This is especially important to remember when we consider race in Greco-Roman galleries, as specific collections and museum displays have undoubtedly had a huge impact on the way we curate the ancient world. In contemporary practice, the way we look at the relationship between race, history, and our institutions of education is changing, and in the case of classical antiquity it is especially important to challenge the traditions that have been engrained into the field since its inception.

As such, it is my most sincere hope that this research will inspire others to actively look for and see colour in antiquity, and to add to the corpus of work bringing about real and positive change in the relationship between museums, Black history, and the Greco-Roman world.

Note: the photo used as featured image is a bronze vessel in the form of the head of a young African woman. Hellenistic, dated to the second to first centuries BC. Currently in the British Museum.