Thursday, 16 June 2022

Constructing the African: A Panoply Interview with Najee Olya.

We’re delighted to have the chance to speak to Najee Olya, a PhD student at the University of Virginia, USA, working on the dissertation, Constructing the African in Ancient Greek Vase-Painting: Images, Meanings and Contexts. Before beginning doctoral study, Najee earned a B.A. in Anthropology and Classical Civilization at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an M.A. in Classics at the University of Arizona. In the field, he has participated in archaeological excavations in Italy at Etruscan Populonia at Poggio del Molino, and since 2018 at Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia, Greece. Najee is currently a William Sanders Scarborough Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, researching vases in Greek collections and their archaeological contexts. The next academic year will see him take up a post as the Bothmer Fellow in the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In this interview, Najee offers insight into his research on Africans in ancient Greek pottery…

1) What contexts do you think ancient Greeks and ancient Africans are encountering each other in?
I think that the primary context would be in Egypt. Given that there are Greeks in Egypt in the Archaic period as mercenaries and at Naukratis, it must be there that Greeks are encountering not only Egyptians but people from elsewhere in Africa, especially from south of Egypt itself—what the Greeks generally referred to as Aithiopia (not to be confused with the modern state). I also suspect that major hubs of maritime trade would have been the sorts of places where Greeks encountered people from Africa, at various ports and emporia – trading posts - around the Aegean and the wider Mediterranean. Conversely, I’m inclined to think that direct contacts on the Greek mainland were somewhat limited. That said, in a major city like Athens, for example, the interest in Africans among potters and vase-painters seems to indicate at least some kind of familiarity with what Africans looked like that doesn’t appear to come from just seeing artistic depictions. Moreover, there were almost certainly foreigners and people of foreign descent working in the Kerameikos in Athens, so it's impossible to rule out that at least one or two may have been from Africa. There’s also Athens’s port at Piraeus, which saw a lot of traffic from a variety of traders and merchants.
Above, a janiform cup (ie. two heads back-to-back like the god, Janus), showing an African and a European, Attic c.500-450BCE, The Art Museum, Princeton University: 33.45.

2) Who are the Africans depicted in Greek pottery – what trends are there?
There are three categories, as far as I can tell, into which the Africans depicted in Greek pottery can be grouped. Two of these are fairly straightforward mythological episodes and scenes of daily life. The third is more difficult, and consists of imagery that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the two other categories.

In terms of the mythological episodes, the main figures from Africa are Memnon and Andromeda. The pair are both said to be royalty from Aithiopia in the mythological tradition. Memnon was king of Aithiopia and an ally to Troy in the Trojan War, where he led a huge army from Aithiopia before eventually being killed by the hero Achilles. Andromeda was an Aithiopian princess who was offered up as a sacrifice to appease the ketos serpent, a sea monster sent by Poseidon to ravage the coasts of Aithiopia after Andromeda’s mother Cassieopeia had boasted that she (Cassieopeia) was more beautiful than the Nereids. Andromeda was rescued by Perseus, and the two married. In vase painting, Neither Memnon nor Andromeda are shown as African themselves, but there are instances in the iconography where Memnon is shown preparing to depart for Troy attended by African warriors.

In the Andromeda scenes, she is shown being bound between stakes for the ketos monster, sometimes in Persian dress. There are Africans on a number of the Andromeda vases. There are some mythological traditions which associate Memnon and Andromeda with the Near East, so this might explain why they are not depicted as African themselves.
Above, Andromeda with African attendants, Attic pelike c.475-425BCE, Boston Museum of Art, 63.2663.

Next, there are depictions of the hero Herakles in Egypt and Libya. In Egypt, he encounters the pharaoh Busiris, who wants to sacrifice the hero to end a drought. On pottery Herakles is shown routing Busiris and his priests, who are always depicted as African men. In Libya, Herakles is accosted by the earth giant Antaios, who waylays strangers, forces them to wrestle, and then adorns the temple of Poseidon with their bones after he has killed them. Herakles defeats Antaios by lifting him from the ground as they wrestle and cutting him off from the Earth, from which he derived his strength. On pottery, physical contrast is shown between the two as they wrestle—Antaios has a long unkempt beard and hair, similar to Egyptian depictions of Libyans.
Above, Heracles fights Busiris, Attic pelike c.500-450BCE, Athens, National Museum: CC1175.

As for images from daily life, we have African stable-hands, warriors, and some attendants at the grave. These figures can generally be identified by their very curly hair and prominent noses. The last set of objects includes things like plastic vases, which show either full African figures or African faces alone or paired with women, satyrs, Herakles, and Dionysos. Finally, there are alabastra, a shape that rather circuitously made its way to Greece from Egypt, used for perfumed oil which depict African warriors.
Above, An African groom cares for a horse, Attic kylix c.490, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989.281.71.

3) Some Africans seem to be represented rather beautifully; other depictions feel a bit… off. What’s the balance between realism, idealism, and hostile caricature in ancient Greek depictions of Africans?
On the whole, I would say that most of the depictions are not hostile caricature. I can think of one example, a lekythos in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, which shows what seems to be an African woman being tortured by satyrs. There is also at least one image of a figure who may be African shown wearing shackles and is unambiguously an enslaved person. I do not think, however, that it is possible to definitively call either instance caricature.

Plastic vessels made in the form of African youths being attacked by crocodiles have sometime been interpreted as cruel, mocking images, but one can just as easily say that these show interest in the river Nile and awareness of its dangerous fauna. Aside from these examples, however, I think that many of the images are either ambiguous or benign. It is difficult to know what the representations were meant to convey to ancient Greek users. When it comes to realism, the images are realistic to a degree, but as with all ancient Greek art, it is superficial and illusory. Especially when it comes to pottery, I think that one has to remember that the medium and its convention limit just how true-to-life the representations can be. The end result is something of a pastiche of reality and imagination—the vase-painter selects the subject matter and then executes it in his own way, but the final product will always be constrained by things like the limited colour palette and the curving surface of the vase.

Above, an African youth attacked by a crocodile, Attic rhyton, c.350BCE, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge GR.58.1865.

4) Overall, what does pottery add to our understanding of ancient Greek ideas about Africans and Africa?
First and foremost, I think it reminds us that ancient Greece was part of an interconnected ancient Mediterranean. Also, that “ancient Greece” spanned three continents, with settlements and poleis not just in Europe but also in North Africa and Western Asia. Pottery tells us that ancient Greeks were interested in depicting foreign people such as Africans, and while it is difficult to interpret all of the different representations, it is clear that potters and vase-painters found Africans an intriguing subject, and that the purchasers of Athenian vases did too. The representations, in a general way, seem to indicate that Athenians were thinking about North Africa in particular, especially Libya and Egypt, where there were permanent Greek settlements. What they specifically thought about Africans is harder to determine from the pottery itself, but it does not seem to be the case that Africans were viewed any differently than other foreigners. Certainly, there was a general chauvinism toward non-Greeks, but Africans do not appear to have been singled out more than other groups, such as Persians or Scythians.
Above, An African in trousers, Attic alabastron, c.500-450, The J. Paul Getty Museum: 71.AE.202.

5) What would you like to see improved in terms of using pottery to increase general understanding of Black people within ancient Greek culture?
One thing that could use some improvement is the terminology used to describe the artifacts, which is often simultaneously both outdated and anachronistic. In scholarship this is due in part to the rather small corpus dealing with Africans on Greek pottery, much of which is several decades old now. Also, you will often see in museums or on museum websites descriptions that assume the depictions of Africans on vases are slaves, without any explanation, or descriptions that make use of discredited race-essentialist anthropology to discuss their physical characteristics.

I think that it’s extremely important to rethink how Greek vases with depictions of Africans are presented in museums, as those are the spaces where the wider public is most likely to encounter the artifacts. Some museums are already making efforts to rethink their use of language for the objects, such as the J. Paul Getty Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Art. I was recently asked by a curator at the latter to write a new label for an Athenian black-figure vase in their collection which has a depiction of Memnon and one of his African warriors. Hopefully the number of museums revamping their descriptions will increase going forward.
Above, King Memon with African attendants, Attic amphora by Exekias, c.575-525, British Museum, B209, previously 1849,0518.10.

6) Perhaps you could tell us a bit about your Fellowships – what they are, how they work?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been awarded several fellowships that allowed me to study in Greece — from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) and the American Philosophical Society (APS). I started out at the American School in 2017 with a scholarship for the Summer Session, which is a six-week course involving travel around Greece to archaeological sites and museums. I came back to the ASCSA two years later in 2019 with a fellowship to participate in the Regular Program, which is an academic year spent in Athens, travelling around Greece more than the Summer Session. Now, I’m wrapping up my third stay at the American School with a fellowship as an Associate Member. This time, I’m focused entirely on working on my dissertation and taking the opportunity to revisit artifacts in museums relevant to my research, in addition to obtaining special permission to photograph many of the vases outside of their displays.

I received a Lewis and Clark Grant from the APS in 2019, which allowed me to do field research in Greece. I travelled to archaeological sites that are documented as having had material from Egypt excavated there, created an archive of photographs, and got a better sense of the sites and their topography from first-hand observation. Finally, in September 2022 I’ll be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a year as the Bothmer Fellow in the Department of Greek and Roman Art. The fellowship will allow me to complete my dissertation and to access a number of the vases included in it, as well as the Met’s libraries. It’s worth keeping your eyes open to see what opportunities and funding are available.

7) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
It might be an obvious answer, but I will say Herodotus. I first read the Histories almost fifteen years ago as a Classics undergraduate, first in translation in a course taught wonderfully by Nanno Marinatos, and then in ancient Greek language courses. I think that it must be Herodotus’s interest in different cultures and his efforts to understand and make them legible for his readers that resonated with me, especially as someone who had already studied a bit of anthropology and archaeology before I came to Classics. As much as I enjoyed Herodotus years ago, I had pretty much left him behind until I selected my dissertation topic at the end of the first year working on the PhD. Since then, I’ve been revisiting him, as he famously writes about both Egypt and Aithiopia. I still read the Histories with a sense of wonder, but now I appreciate the complexity and sophistication of the work even more. Herodotus is one of the people from antiquity that I’d love to have a chat with if time travel were possible!

Many thanks to Najee for sharing his expertise!
If you enjoyed this topic, you may enjoy our previous blog post, Black and White Andromeda.
We'll have more news soon regarding a new Iris video!