By Paula Gaither, Elisa McAtee, Kenneth Lapatin, and David Saunders
Museums have much work to do. The Black Lives Matter movement’s call for social reform extends to arts institutions, bringing focus to the need for inclusivity and equity. The ways in which we present and describe artworks in our care are central to these efforts. In the Getty Museum’s Antiquities department, we have turned our attention to artifacts that depict—or have been thought to depict—Black Africans. Recognizing that many of our descriptions and titles for these objects were inadequate, we are undertaking a review of our online collection and the terms that we use. We recently completed a first batch of updates, and offer here some insights into issues that we faced.
The Antiquities collection presents particular challenges. All too often, we do not know where objects were found or who made them. In this absence of information, it is all too easy for presumptions—or misinterpretations—to take root. The study of Classics has consistently been deployed to support white supremacist ideology. Basil Gildersleeve, one of the most prominent American Classics scholars of the 19th century, used his training to justify the institution of slavery and the Confederate cause. The white surfaces of Greek and Roman marble sculpture, long wrongly believed by many to be undecorated, have been conflated with white skin. This has been used to legitimize scientific theories of racism, which touted Europeans’ genetic superiority over non-Europeans. Contemporary white supremacist groups continue to appropriate Greek and Roman texts and imagery to justify ideas of racial superiority. These racist uses of Classical precedents reveal far more about those who employ them than they do about the past. In reality, many different peoples inhabited the Greco-Roman world, which was vast in geographical and chronological scope. We hope that in undertaking our project, we can better present the diversity of the ancient Mediterranean.
Modern conceptions of race are unhelpful when discussing the ancient world. These are based largely on the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, and European imperialism—all of which took place centuries after the period that we are studying. We decided to use the term “Black African” as we believe this best acknowledges the fact that not all Africans are Black and not all Black people are African. To use one without the other risks conflating an entire continent with a construct of race and imposing modern notions onto the past.
The inadequacy of our old online descriptions took many forms. Some were simply lacking altogether. Others were brief, providing a short account, but hardly helpful without broader context. Another group had lengthy texts, but these were written over a decade ago and many called out for revision. A number, for example, overlooked issues of race, gender, violence, and enslavement. This silence is dangerous, as it leaves space for anachronistic assumptions and stereotypes to flourish.
In this first phase of our project, we’ve completed new descriptions for several objects in the Getty’s collection. These span the sixth century BC to the second century AD, and range from moldmade terracotta lamps to carefully carved marble portraits. While we may not have arrived at a single “correct” interpretation or any perfect solutions, our work is a step towards a richer and more open appreciation of these works and the settings in which they were made and used.
Small but with Much to Say: A Seal from Naukratis
We’ll start with something straightforward: expanding an existing entry. The previous description for this tiny seal, published in a scholarly catalog in 1992 and used in our internal database, was:
“The back of the seal takes the form of the head of a black African. The engraved surface is decorated with the scene of a lion attacking a bull(?), with a linear border. Worn but intact.”
While not incorrect, this focuses upon the object’s most basic physical details and does not elucidate its material, archaeological, and cultural contexts. In fact, this seal offers a compelling demonstration of the trade networks that spanned the Mediterranean. Greeks encountered Black Africans through these pathways of exchange and manufacture, and we have rich evidence for this at Naukratis, where the seal was made. Naukratis was a trading colony on the Nile Delta used by Greeks during the sixth century BC and beyond. A factory there produced scarabs and other seals in one of the world’s first synthetic materials, so-called “Egyptian Blue.” These were distributed widely, serving an international export market. On this seal, the head of a Black African replaces the scarab-beetle that traditionally appeared on the reverse of Egyptian seals as a positive symbol of rebirth. Such seals provide us with the earliest known Greek depictions of Black Africans after the Bronze Age.
Form and Function: An Etruscan Finial
What can we learn from the settings in which images of Black Africans occur? This Etruscan figurine takes the form of a carefully rendered youth sitting at rest, and the spool-shaped base indicates that it served as the decorative feature atop a candelabrum. The youth’s pose, hairstyle, and facial features find parallels with other depictions of Black Africans in the ancient Mediterranean. Why would such a figure feature on an object that brought illumination to a group of banqueting Etruscans in central Italy?
The young man represents an enslaved individual, one of many who made possible the leisure and comfort of their owners. Most enslaved people in Etruria came from transalpine Gaul (modern-day France and Belgium), and Black Africans—viewed as an exotic people from a far-away land—would have been even more valuable for their rarity. So, as a crowning feature to a lamp-stand, this youth is an adornment to the experience of feasting and leisure. Deprived of individuality, and without any reference to the conditions of his existence and experience, he becomes an object for the delight of the lampstand’s owner and guests. In this, he finds ancient counterparts in Greek serving vessels and Roman lamps. Modern parallels can be drawn, too. In 19th- and 20th-century America, for example, racist figurines showed Black people happily performing the work of slaves, and caricatures of enslaved Black people have been used to advertise breakfast foods.
Names Matter: An Athenian Perfume Jar
The hairstyle, facial features, costume, and large palm tree together serve to identify the archer on this perfume jar as a Black African, but the figure’s gender and identity remain uncertain. Our updated description details some possibilities for interpretation, but here we’d like to address another matter: terminology.
Signatures on Athenian vases provide us with the names of a number of potters and painters (and indicate that some may have been non-Athenian or enslaved), but many of their colleagues remain unknown. British scholar Sir John Beazley identified dozens of these using nicknames, and so today we refer to “Elbows Out,” “The Flying-angel Painter,” and even “The Worst Painter.” Beazley often derived his names from a distinctive pictorial feature, and our oil jar is one of around eighty attributed to the so-called “Group of the Negro Alabastra.” The term first appeared in print in 1942 and continues to be used by scholars.
Old terminology like this, which is often outdated or inappropriate, poses a real challenge for museums. Omitting it entirely is one possibility, but words or phrases that have long been associated with an object remain critical metadata, enabling effective reference and research. Some institutions, such as the Peabody Museum at Harvard, have added a general statement on their collection pages to acknowledge that their records may contain language that is no longer acceptable, and that their staff are undertaking revisions. The Getty’s Department of Photographs is also grappling with these issues when dealing with the titles assigned to a print, as well as with the inscriptions added by an artist, publisher, or former owner. In the case of this vase, we knew that the “Group of the Negro Alabastra” would appear without comment in the “Artist” line, so we added an additional paragraph to the description to clarify why we continue to use the term.
Determining Identity: A Portrait of a Child
Of all of the objects that we’ve studied so far, this carefully rendered head posed the deepest challenges. It had long been cataloged as a “Portrait of an African Boy,” but embedded in this simple-sounding title are numerous assumptions that demanded reassessment.
We know very little about the head, which survives separately from its body or bust. As with all of the objects discussed here, we do not know where it was found, nor how it entered the art market. There is no inscription that provides the figure’s name, nor have we identified any traces of pigment on the surface or other clues that might help to characterize the boy. Judging by technique and style, we can say it was carved in the second century A.D., but by that point the Roman Empire spanned all the way from Britain to Egypt, so this boy could be from almost anywhere.
With this in mind, his identification as a Black African—a “fact” that had become embedded in publications and gallery labels—rests solely on physical features. But these do nothing to confirm the boy’s race or ethnicity. The hairstyle is typical of the Antonine period (A.D. 138–192) when this portrait was carved, and the high forehead, wide eyes, and snub nose are characteristic of many toddlers.
Setting aside superficial assumptions, one viable observation is that this boy’s portrait is idealized in ways that we encounter for other depictions of Romans. All of which raises questions, not only about this individual (Did he die young? What social circles did his family move in? What did a Roman “identity” mean to him?) but also about our own approach. How can we ensure that we do not use racial stereotypes that are not only misplaced today, but that misunderstand the complex negotiation of identities that took place day by day, person by person, in the ancient Mediterranean? How do we avoid projecting our own assumptions upon cultures that did not share them?
These are questions that cut right to the heart of our work as curators at the Getty Museum, and this project benefited from the participation of each member of the Antiquities department. As we work towards an understanding of the ancient Mediterranean that better acknowledges the diversity of its populations, a few descriptive rewrites as we work from home may seem a tiny step, but we believe they are essential. The assumptions inherent in describing ancient Greece and Rome as “the Classical World,” the privileging of whiteness, and the neglect of what has long been considered marginal, have all rooted themselves deeply into practices of both study and display. Object by object, we can make progress towards changing these narratives.
- Noel Lenski, “Functional Art and Roman Conceptions of Slavery,” in Michele George ed., Roman Slavery and Roman Material Culture, 2013.
- Jenifer Neils, “The Group of the Negro Alabastra Reconsidered.” In Il Greco, il barbaro e il ceramica attica. Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi 14-19 Maggio, 2001, edited by Filippo Giudice and Rosalba Panvini, 2007, pp. 67-74.
- Frank M. Snowden, Jr., “Iconographical Evidence of the Black Populations in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” in David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (eds.), The Image of the Black in Western Art, 1, From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire, 2010, pp. 133-245.
- Jeremy Tanner, “Race and Representation in Ancient Art: Black Athena and After,” in David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (eds.), The Image of the Black in Western Art, 1, From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire, 2010, pp. 1-39.