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Statue of a Nubian Athlete, by Italian artist


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About the artwork

This statue of a Nubian athlete was originally thought to be of entirely ancient origin, but is now known to have been considerably altered in the 18th century. The parts that have been restored are the arms below the shoulders, both feet, the plinth and the right leg support, the head, as well as parts of the torso and the two legs. An interest in the Classical civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome was generated by the excavations of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748. Together with the writings of the historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) on classical art, this led to the development of a movement in art known as Neo-Classicism. In the second half of the 18th century there was a mania for acquiring artefacts, particularly sculpture from Ancient Greece or Rome. Many statues discovered during excavation work were often fragmented or damaged. These were restored or re-carved, often in such a convincing way that is difficult to tell the difference between the antique parts and later additions.

The theme of this sculpture, boxing, has always featured prominently in the history of art -from antiquity to modern times - as well as in black people's histories and cultures. An interesting time in the history of boxing and its links with both of these traditions occurred in Paris during the 1920s. Boxing had originally been introduced to French society after the Revolution of 1789 through an Anglophile sporting society. However, in the early 20th century, a revival of boxing in Paris arose through American influence and was associated with fairground and circus attractions. In Paris black boxers were not prohibited from fighting against whites, as they were in America until the late 1890s. However they were still perceived as rather exotic beings, brothers of Africans, even if they were of American origin. One of the black boxers who made a career in Paris was the African American Jack Johnson who came to Paris in 1913. The victories of black boxers against whites challenged the traditional view of black people as submissive to whites. This was particularly appreciated by the avant-garde artists of the Dadaist movement, who were keen to shock and disrupt traditional norms of society. However, to Parisian society in general the success of black fighters was seen as a sign of a primitive and savage nature. Even when they achieved fame and financial independence, black boxers had little freedom to break with a role that was invented for them by white society and culture.

Standing in front of the statue of the Nubian athlete today we can question notions of race and difference. We can also consider the construction of identity, stereotypes, popular culture, its heroes and the power of visual and sports culture to either engulf or challenge social ideas and values. In more recent times, black boxers have explored several directions. They have used their fame and success to reject traditional images and ideas about black people and athletes, or in some other cases have fallen victim to their success and invented "personas".

Athletic contests deriving from ancient Greek fighting were a popular spectacle and entertainment for both Roman Emperors as well as the Roman people. Classical authors refer to boxing, or pugilatus, as the most rigorous and dangerous discipline of all athletic competitions. Since the public was used to even more bloody contests by armed gladiators, reinforced gloves were introduced in boxing to increase the impact of the fighters' fists and the violence of the contest. This often led to the death of one contestant. Boxers were often professionals and even non-Roman fighters could win fame and substantial prizes. An example of two African boxers modelled in terracotta from the 2nd- 1st century BC can be seen in the British Museum, and captures the violent, yet highly skilled technique of boxing most clearly. Despite popular misconceptions of gladiators being slaves and fighting for their freedom, in general Greek and Roman civilisations were largely tolerant of those people with exceptional skills and talents from the many provinces of their Empires.

In 18th century England boxing was popular with the lower social classes. The majority of professional boxers were former water-men, bakers and road-workers. Boxing also appealed to the nobility, for whom the art of self-defence was a means of establishing their status as well as sharing the physical prowess of classical heroes from the past. History painters at the time used professional boxers as their models because of their physical appearance and musculature. An example of this is a drawing of the professional boxer James Figg by Jonathan Richardson the Elder in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. For artists in early 19th century England there was an important association between boxers as models and the spirit of Greek classical art. The famous critic John Ruskin believed that "artists should study the souls of the men in their bodies, not their bodies alone", and "boxing unlike other sports did not waste time, land and energy of soul". For the English gentleman of the early 19th century, boxing was the epitome of heroic and patriotic masculinity, which also allowed a transgressive relationship with working class customs and pass-times.

The sculpture

This statue is made of grey veined black marble known as negro antico. This stone can be found in North Africa or Greece. This type of marble was used because the figure represented is a black athlete. The original ancient sculpture that inspired this statue was probably made in bronze that had acquired a black texture. The choice of black marble for an 18th century statue may have been an attempt to imitate the black texture of the original ancient bronze one. It was also common in Roman times to use coloured marble for oriental figures. The trend reached its peak under the Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) when nations such as the recently subdued Dacians were depicted, often on a colossal scale. The use of coloured marble from quarries in Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt and elsewhere in Africa symbolised the power and expansion of the Roman Empire. It was unfortunate that under the influence of the 'new exoticism' in 16th and 17th century Western art, oriental figures of coloured marble had their heads and arms replaced by black marble. The figurines of African Boxers can be viewed on the British Museum website [opens new window].