Consider the vagaries surrounding the label “antiquity”: whose antiquity do you imagine to be the norm? Greece? Rome? Africa? For artist Fred Wilson, antiquity is in Egypt. In his 1993 Grey Area (Brown version), Wilson uses ancient Egyptian art to reframe the parameters of modern beauty as it relates to skin color. Wilson’s installation features five plaster copies of the famous bust of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Sculpted around 1340 BCE, the original limestone bust depicts a woman with light brown skin wearing a tall, flat-topped blue hat and elaborate neckwear. The color of each monochromatic head resembles the spectrum of human skin tones, ranging from off-white to dark brown. Through his creative rendering of Nefertiti, Wilson rebuffs modern attempts to colonize ancient Egypt without overlooking the historical context of his subject matter.
Wilson’s focus on Egypt is part of a larger network of thinkers who rehabilitate lopsided renditions of antiquity. This network includes members of the Nile Valley Collective and the William Leo Hansberry Society, both of whom situate antiquity beyond Europe, which in turn encourages audiences to treat prejudice as a specimen to be studied, rather than slavishly emulated. They build on the work of predecessors who championed the pairing of “antiquity” and “Africa,” including African scholars Ali Mazrui and Cheikh Anta Diop, as well as African American intellectuals William Leo Hansberry and Drusilla Dunjee Houston.
The map of African antiquity benefits from precise vocabulary, starting with the term “Africa.” One potential etymology of “Africa” suggests that ancient Romans renamed the region they acquired from Carthage (modern Tunisia) after the Aouriga, a group of people native to this region. A fragment from a poet named Ennius’ satires (239 BCE–169 BCE) provides the earliest recorded instance of “Africa” in Latin literature: “there are elegant witnesses whom the African earth bears,” (testes sunt . . . quos gerit Africa terra politos, Saturae, 3.16). Subsequent iterations of “Africa” in Latin literature split Africa into “Old Africa” (Africa Vetus) and “New Africa” (Africa Nova).
The terms “Ethiopia” and “Aithiopia/Aethiopia” also indicate a specific linguistic trajectory. Although both share similar roots, deriving from two ancient Greek words: aithō = “I blaze” and ops = “face,” they do not denote the same area. Aithiopia (also known as Nubia or Kush) is an ancient region that coincides with modern-day Egypt and Sudan, and Ethiopia is a modern country located in the horn of Africa. Ethiopia’s extensive liturgical history, not to mention its victory against Italy in the Battle of Adwa (1896), elevated its status in the international arena. Even still, the two regions are distinct from each other.
Despite the undeniably vibrant history of this ancient African landscape, the popularity of anti-Black racism worldwide has rendered Africa an amorphous mass situated at the margins of knowledge production, despite vast amounts of material evidence proving otherwise. In its place, anti-Black racism has promoted the study of ancient empires whose geography corresponds to modern Europe. For those in the discipline of Classics (ancient Greek and Roman Studies), a field whose name itself implies a hierarchy (classical for whom?), the mapping of antiquity is especially contentious. When discussions of skin color and decolonizing the academy enter the fray, debates reach a fever pitch. Seemingly innocuous decisions, such as the BBC’s casting of David Gyasi, whose parents hail from Ghana, as the ancient Greek hero Achilles or scholarly debate surrounding the whitewashing of ancient Greek statues, can lead to racist trolling galore.