Exhibition Dates: November 19, 2023–March 3, 2024
Exhibition Location: The Met Fifth Avenue, Floor 1, Gallery 199
Africa & Byzantium will feature nearly 200 artworks, including many that have never before been exhibited in the United States
The Metropolitan Museum of Art will present Africa & Byzantium, a seminal exhibition of nearly 200 works that will explore the tradition of Byzantine art and culture in North and East Africa from the 4th through the 15th century and beyond. On view from November 19, 2023, through March 3, 2024, Africa & Byzantium will shed light on an underrepresented area of art history and showcase a burgeoning new field of interdisciplinary scholarship on medieval Africa. Even though Byzantium was a vast empire that spanned parts of Africa, Europe, and Asia, its extensive connections to Africa have previously been understudied. Bringing together art, religion, literature, history, and archaeology, this innovative exhibition will highlight artworks from the multicultural communities of northern and eastern Africa.
The exhibition focuses on the art from the centuries when much of North Africa was ruled by the Byzantine Empire from its capital in Constantinople and when early Christianity developed in kingdoms on the horn of Africa (the fourth to the seventh century CE). It also addresses the distinctive religious and artistic traditions that flourished in Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia (the 8th to the 15th century CE). Faith, politics, and commerce across land and sea linked these traditions to Byzantium, resulting in a lively interchange of arts and beliefs. Objects in the exhibition date from the Roman to the early modern periods and span a range of media, from monumental frescoes, mosaics, panel paintings, and metalwork, to jewelry, ceramics, and illuminated manuscripts. The exhibition includes significant international loans from over 30 lenders, including the Carthage Museum in Tunisia, Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine’s at Sinai, many of which are being exhibited in the U.S. for the first time.
This exhibition is made possible by the Ford Foundation, The Giorgi Family Foundation, and Mary Jaharis.
Major support is provided by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.*
Additional support is provided by an Anonymous Foundation, the Michel David-Weill Fund, The International Council of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Visiting Committee for the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cleveland Museum of Art.
“This stunning exhibition brings new focus and scholarship to an understudied field, expanding our knowledge of Byzantine and Early Christian Art within an expansive worldview,” said Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and CEO. “Through spectacular and widely unknown works of art, Africa & Byzantium illuminates the development, continuity, and adaptation of Byzantine art and culture in North Africa and the Horn of Africa, recentering African artistic contributions to the pre-modern period.”
Andrea Achi, Mary and Michael Jaharis Associate Curator of Byzantine Art at The Met, said: “Africa & Byzantium builds upon the long legacy of The Met’s award-winning Byzantine exhibitions. Bringing together new research from over forty scholars worldwide, the exhibition addresses how diverse communities connected to Byzantium flourished in African empires and kingdoms for over a thousand years. It will broaden public understanding of the Byzantine world, its reach, and transcultural authority and examine the critical role of early African Christian civilizations in this creative sphere.”
The exhibition will foreground the critical role played by early African Christianity and its heritage, traditions, and history in the Byzantine world, while challenging common preconceptions about the arts of both Africa and Byzantium. In presenting Africa as central to the world of late antique and Byzantine worlds, the exhibition considers the global impact of ideas and arts made in northern and eastern Africa.
North African artisans produced some of the most exquisite mosaics in the Roman Empire using the richly colored limestones and marbles of the region to produce complex polychrome designs. Remarkable Tunisian mosaics from the Carthage Museum and the Louvre will exemplify the virtuosic achievements of North African mosaicists.
An anchor of the exhibition is an Egyptian tapestry depicting Artemis and Actaeon—a theme from Ovid’s Metamorphoses—that will join other late antique textiles depicting Black figures drawn from Greco-Roman mythologies. In addition to highlighting issues of race, these works help explore the legacy of the classical past in the arts of late antique Africa.
Medieval Nubians moved in multiple cultural worlds; in addition to their indigenous language, many of the elites were fluent in Greek, Coptic (Egyptian), and, later, Arabic. Nubian material and visual culture were equally complex. The exhibition will feature numerous representations of Nubian bishops and dignitaries from the Great Cathedral of Faras, which is currently submerged in the Nile. The liturgical dress of the Nubian figures parallels trends in religious fashion from Constantinople.
The exhibition will also showcase art that represents medieval Ethiopian engagement with foreign Christian religious imports, such as icons, from the Mediterranean and Western Europe. For example, a painting of “Our Lady Mary with the Child,” from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, depicts a theme of the nursing Mary originating in Egypt that then spread across the Mediterranean and down the Nile.
Credits and Related Content
Africa & Byzantium is organized by Andrea Achi, Mary and Michael Jaharis Associate Curator of Byzantine Art, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters at The Met. Helen C. Evans, Curator Emerita, serves as consulting curator. Michelle al-Ferzly, Research Associate, has provided research assistance. Kristen Windmuller-Luna, Curator of African Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, serves as contributing curator for the exhibition.
Following the exhibition’s debut at The Met, it will travel to The Cleveland Museum of Art.
The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue distributed by Yale University Press. The publication reconsiders the continent’s contributions to the development of the premodern world and offers a more complete history of Africa as a vibrant, multiethnic society of diverse languages and faiths that played a key role in the artistic, economic, and cultural life of Byzantium and beyond. The path-breaking book features contributions from an international team of forty scholars from Tunisia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Lebanon, France, Poland, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The catalogue is made possible by The Giorgi Family Foundation and the Mellon Foundation.
Additional support is provided by Nellie and Robert Gipson, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Wendy A. Stein and Bart Friedman, and the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.
Education programs are made possible by Colleen Ritzau Leth.
The exhibition will be featured on The Met website as well as on social media.
*Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.