In Ancient Egypt, Were Africans the Oppressors or the Oppressed?

Image of the Week: A scene from a mural represents the dual role of black men in European art.

Edward John Poynter, Israel in Egypt, 1867. Oil on canvas, 137.1 by 316.8 cm.
Edward John Poynter, Israel in Egypt, 1867. Oil on canvas, 137.1 by 316.8 cm. Guildhall Art Gallery, London

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 Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

A huge tableau, painted on a mural scale more than 10 feet wide, provides a highly nuanced glimpse into the golden age of ancient Egypt. The scene takes place before a massive temple complex of the New Kingdom, similar to the one still standing at the sacred precinct of Karnak along the Nile. With the addition of the huge stone lions being dragged into place by a large mass of workers, construction will be complete.

The artist is Edward John Poynter, an academically trained British painter and illustrator who enjoyed a long, successful career. His epic evocation of the greatness of empire presents the plight of the Israelites as an enslaved people, as recounted in the Biblical book of Exodus. Shortly after completion, the painting was exhibited to general acclaim at the Royal Academy, the most prestigious venue for works of art in Britain. The image was widely disseminated in the form of a printed reproduction in the mass media weekly the Illustrated London News.

Several black figures play a prominent role in the painting’s subject. One of the most engaging of them is the dancing man who accompanies the chorus of Egyptian women at the right of the painting. More than an entertainer, he provides a rhythmic cadence for the efforts of the work gang. His animated figure often appears as a simple genre motif of contemporary painting, such as that of the Middle Eastern bateleur, or itinerant musician.

In Poynter’s exposition of his subject, ancient Egypt takes on a role antithetical to the Western tradition of progress and representative government. The haughty grandeur of kingship and religion displayed on the temple walls, as well as the priestess of Isis, with her sacred rattle at the far right, indicates the folly of false worship in the face of the invisible but all-powerful god of the Hebrew slaves.

The participation of black people in the scene plays a clear part in the subjugation of the Israelites, an involvement that seems to equate those of African descent with the forces of evil. No longer simply a picturesque form of exoticism, blacks reacquire the historic representation of the demonic presence lingering from the European Middle Ages. Both the black man whipping the Israelites as they strain to pull the sphinx and the dancing figure in the right foreground aid the pharaonic power in its willful exploitation of a people joined by covenant with the true god. Perched atop the figure of the recumbent sphinx just to the left of this detail, another black man holds a parasol over the head of a light-skinned Egyptian who whips the slaves ahead of him.

Concurrent with the black man’s enlistment on the side of oppression is his own supposedly subjected state as a descendant of the cursed race of Ham. The son of the biblical patriarch Noah punished for having mocked his father, Ham was doomed to live in inhospitable lands such as Africa, far away from his brothers, Shem and Japheth. Shem was especially favored for his pious treatment of his father and is understood as the progenitor of those who kept faith with the divine plan for humankind.

Shem thus became the exemplar of the Judeo-Christian tradition, while Ham languished in a state of spiritual ignorance. One pernicious result of this interpretation was the assumed inferiority of the Hamitic people in relation to the progeny of Shem, whose favored status was to be expressed in the form of dominance over Ham and the other peoples of the earth. The debased state of Ham brings up the issue of the particular nature of the black men’s servitude in the painting. Are they themselves slaves, like the Hebrews, or essentially free men serving the agenda of the Egyptian state?

The black presence in Poynter’s vast painting evokes a sense of the exotic and at times threatening specter of otherness. Historically, the long relationship between black Africans and ancient Egypt differed dramatically from what is seen here. The presence of Nubia, Egypt’s great neighbor to the south, provided a wealth of mutually beneficial, willingly provided services to the great pharaonic power during its most expansive period. For example, throughout all phases of recorded Egyptian history, Nubian warriors served in the pharaoh’s army, especially as archers.