Constructing the African in Ancient Greek Vase-Painting: Images, Meanings, and Contexts

Olya, Najee, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Smith, Tyler Jo, AS-Art (ARTD), University of Virginia

The present study explores how Africans are represented in Archaic and Classical Greek vase-painting produced primarily in Athens from the sixth through fourth centuries BCE. The project has two primary goals. First, to bring together the full range of representations of Africans in ancient Greek vase-painting in a single, in-depth, comprehensive study—the first of its kind—which considers the vases in their multiple contexts. This includes not only archaeological context when known, but context of production, context of use, sociocultural context, and modern contexts. Second, to offer an archaeological and art historical contribution to the historiography of race, ethnicity, and otherness in Classical studies. To accomplish these goals, an examination of the vases is carried out by scrutinizing the physical attributes, dress, and roles of African figures, as well as the iconographic settings in mythological episodes or the world of daily life. Throughout the explorations, the racialization of the objects in existing scholarship is highlighted and interrogated. Portrayals of Africans in Greek vase-painting are found in the black-figure, red-figure, and white-ground techniques, as well as among plastic vases with three-dimensional decoration. In total, over 350 vases are documented in the accompanying catalogue. The study opens with a general introduction to Greek vase-painting, a survey of the previous study of Africans in the medium, how one identifies an African in vase-painting, problems of terminology, and the function of vases as multisensory objects. An exploration of the place of ancient Greece in the interconnected Mediterranean follows, focusing on ancient Greek colonization and expansion, Greek relations with Africa, the construction of the other in literature and art, and the lingering influence of the pioneering black classicist Frank M. Snowden, Jr. Subsequently, the examination of the vases is divided thematically and in one case by vase type, beginning with a chapter on Africans in scenes of daily life, followed by a chapter each on the exploits of the Greek hero Herakles, the mythological figures Memnon and Andromeda, three-dimensional plastic vases in the form of African faces and figures, and the Group of the Negro Alabastra. In the conclusion, trends across the chapters are discussed and future directions for study are offered. It is demonstrated that while the images of Africans created by ancient Greek vase-painters necessarily follow artistic convention and are constrained by the limitations of technique and medium, the portrayals are neither homogeneous or caricatured. Ancient Greek vase-painters had at least some familiarity with real-world African people from a variety of places, in addition to knowledge of Egyptian iconography. The emergence of depictions of Africans in vase-painting coincides with the intensification of existing Greek relations with Egypt beginning in the sixth century BCE. In terms of functions and audiences, while many of the vases are associated with the consumption of wine in the elite male drinking party, the symposion, as well as with perfume use, when archaeological contexts in Greece are known, these are often funerary. In addition, many of the vases were deposited in Etruscan graves in Tuscany, and were thus had at least one non-Greek audience. In sum, it is suggested that the artifacts were dynamic objects produced and used in an international sociocultural milieu.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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