Art Historian Speaks about the Egyptian ‘Other’ in Roman art

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

John Clarke gave the Benjamin West Lecture in the History of Art yesterday in the LPAC Cinema. The Annie Laurie Howard Regents Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin, Mr. Clarke spoke about the social conditions of ‘Pygmy’ and ‘Ethiope’ imagery in Roman mosaics. The lecture, titled “Power over the Other–or the Other’s Power? Laughing at the ‘Pygmy’ and the ‘Black’,” was drawn from a book-in-progress, “Looking at Laughter,” about images of the social ‘Other’ in Roman art. Clarke argued that the ‘Pygmy’ and the ‘Ethiope’ were cultural inventions necessary to label Egypt the ‘Other’ and so maintain power over it as a colonial empire.

Clarke stressed three main functions that these images performed. They had an immediate, obvious element of pastoral entertainment, the role of defining Egypt as a social ‘Other,’ and they were also used to avert demons. It was after Emperor Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra that the ‘Ethiope’ and ‘Pygmy’ first began to appear in mosaic art, usually as clown figures. In the “House of the Sculptor” at Pompeii, these figures are included among animals as instances of wild humans. Incontinent both rectally and sexually, these dwarfed persons have large penises the Romans thought grotesque. They are prominently featured in art that is found in gardens, as examples of the ‘natural’ world. As the mythologized imaginings of a foreign, exotic territory difficult for artists to travel to, these phallic creatures also symbolized the fertility of the colonial Nile. Also, Romans believed that demons were ever-present in the world, and the very phallic imagery that made them stop and laugh in these pictures was thought to fascinate or distract demons and prevent them from causing sickness or death.

After the large earthquake that hit Pompeii on the 5th of February in 62 AD, the elites left the city while workers rebuilt it. In this unique cultural setting, the workers, taking advantage of cheap real estate, bought and maintained miniature villas modeled after those owned by the absent aristocracy. Clarke discussed the menageries of symbolic references these workers amassed, especially at one of these villas, called the “doctor’s house,” which became what he called a ‘compendium of the pygmy.’ He created a video reconstruction of how the Romans who lived here would have approached a particular set of frescoes that were situated in a garden near a dining room. Just before entering the dining room, one would have seen images of unmanly ‘Pygmy’ hunting clowns and reveling ‘Pygmies’ that took to excess the eating, drinking, and sexual activity decried by elite Romans, though still associated with their own parties. The ‘Pygmy’ bodies are deformed and overly phallic, and thus have the same comic and apotropaic functions of the similar images found before the quake. He hypothesized that these culturally significant images would have been painted in the dining room itself if it hadn’t had older images that probably had a ‘snob’ value for the bourgeois owners of mini-villas.

After his lecture, Clarke took time to answer questions. Educated at Yale, Clarke has published extensively on Roman art and the visual literacy of its people, focusing on public spaces and the art that would have been seen by the masses. He was introduced by Thomas Merton, an assistant professor of the history of art at Swarthmore.

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