Kush: Lost Kingdom of the Nile

Brockton Art Museum / Brockton

(Originally published in Art New England, 2 Sections, Volume III Number 1, December 1981.)

Kush was a kingdom that flourished for nearly a thousand years in the area now called the Sudan, connected by the Nile through a vast expanse of desert to Egypt. Conquered by the Pharaohs of the New Kingdom, the Kushites adapted the forms of Egyptian culture to those of Central Africa. Their animation, powerful aesthetic sensibility, and standards of human physical beauty transfigured the configurations of Egyptian art. Kush briefly conquered Egypt in 800 B.C.; the black kings of Kush were Egypt’s twenty-fifth dynasty, called Ethiopian. Expelled by the Assyrians, they perpetuated in isolation customs and forms that disappeared from Egypt until Kish itself was overrun by desert tribes around A.D 350. Their elaborate graves, transpositions of Egyptian funerary rites, were robbed during antiquity; only splinters of their civilization remain. These fragments, seen on exhibit in Brockton, were discovered by an expedition sent by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 916 to the pyramid fields near ancient Kush capitals.

Gleanings from the eleventh-century B.C. necropolis, El-Kurru, include pieces of black-painted blue faience, ceremonial arrowheads, and several groupings of Red Sea shells and stones of many different types all found, polished or carved into the same sizes and shapes, from the pyramid tomb of Queen Khensa. An inscription describes her as:

“great of charm, great of praise, possessor of grace, sweet of love.”

A gilded silver plume holder in the shape of a bird emerging from a papyrus flower came from the graves of horses that were buried draped in bead nets and hunt with cowrie shells, amulets, and silver collars. A feeling for animals sees to have found form in animated representations of a tiny, alert bronze lion, a smooth, round, alabaster carving of a bound oryx that recalls Brancusi’s abstractions, and other beasts.

A seventh-century B.C. shawabti of King Taharqo is sensitively carved from smooth black and brown speckled granite. The noble, calm expression of his strong African features and large, restful hands humanizes the abstract cylinder of his hieroglyphic-covered body. A sandstone relief of three men playing a board game from the tomb of King Aramatelq is lyrically carved in simple, expressive lines that bring Matisse’s woodcuts to mind.

A bronze quiver with arrows and bells and jewelry of carnelian, alabaster, glass beads, and gold from Meroe in the second century A.D. are visually among the most completely African pieces. Carvings on sandstone masonry from that necropolis show a Meriotic queen on a lion throne, wearing earrings and surrounded by female attendants in Egyptian poses. This fragment has an immediate physical presence that moves us to feel the drama of the passion of Kush for Egypt and to suffer for the loss of their kingdom.

Kush: Lost Kingdom of the Nile is a small but profound meditation on Art, Time, and the ancient river.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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