Black, Greek and Really Old School

Image of the Week: From statues to ceramic vessels, Africans appear often in the art of Ancient Greece.

Greek (Attic) kantharos in the form of elderly man's head; second half of sixth century B.C.(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

An often overlooked but highly significant component of ancient Greek art involves the representation of black people. From the mid-sixth century B.C. to the late Roman period, Africans appear in a multitude of forms. They are encountered on carved reliefs, statues and statuettes and vase paintings and were almost certainly featured in large-scale paintings that have been lost to posterity. Hand-modeled ceramic vessels like this example were first produced in potters’ shops in Athens. They were rapidly distributed throughout the Greek world, both as exports and as local production.

The hundreds of examples that still exist in museums and private collections throughout the world attest to the popularity of Africans in ancient times. Often a black head is joined on the same vessel with another head, such as a young woman or a satyr. The role of the black person in ancient Greece may seem exotic, but in fact it is here revealed to have been widely recognized and incorporated into a culture that, as Martin Bernal has pointed out, was, after all, so close to Africa.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.