Medieval Art & The Afterlife: A Conversation with Andrea Achi

By Nabila Brache

Medieval Art & The Afterlife: A Conversation with Andrea Achi

Being in isolation has allowed us to have conversations with professionals of different fields, giving us an opportunity to learn and connect. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Andrea Achi, assistant curator of the Medieval Art and the Cloisters department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When Joel and I visited the Met Cloisters last year, we felt very inspired by the architecture, sculptures and decorative arts. It then became the location where we shot the campaign for Medicina de Amor, our first collection.

NABILA BRACHE: Tell us about how you became an assistant curator of Medieval Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. What has been your career path up until this moment?

ANDREA ACHI: My path to the museum world was not a straight one. I studied Greek and Latin at Barnard College, and, in my senior year, I spent a semester in Egypt at a late antique/early Byzantine (3rd- 8th century CE) archaeological site in the Western Desert. Because of Egypt’s dry climate, many Greek and Coptic (Egyptian language in Greek letters) texts are preserved on papyri and potsherds. The experience, working at the site, was transforming. We encountered remarkable finds such as houses with vibrant wall paintings, and we made intimate discoveries such as uncovering letters from family members who lived in those houses. After my time in Egypt, I decided I wanted to earn a doctorate in Art History and Archaeology and to continue to study the material culture of late antiquity and Byzantium.

While in graduate school, I continued to work on excavations in Egypt and Italy, and I also interned at The Met. In my internship, I analyzed late antique pottery from the Western Desert in Egypt. I was hired, in part, because of my archaeological experience in that region. In many respects, my work at The Met was similar to my work out in the field. I researched archaeological objects and made new discoveries about The Met’s collection. It was deeply rewarding that I was able to share these findings with a broad audience, whereas the results of excavations are usually shared through archaeological reports, which are geared towards academic audiences. 

I did not set out to be a curator, in fact, when I was on the job market, I applied to professor jobs, mostly. However, the Medieval Department at The Met is unique because it has a world-renowned collection of late antique and early Byzantine Art. A significant part of this collection includes archaeological material culture from Egypt, and so in this position, I have come full circle. I still return to excavations in Egypt in order to better understand the original contexts of the art and objects I oversee at The Met.

Roundel, 4th Century

NB: You worked on the exhibition “Art and Peoples of Kharga Oasis” and I found it very interesting that you question that if we had a choice to decorate our future tomb, what would we take to our afterlife, and how these choices reflect our cultural and religious identities. I would like to develop that idea and explore what you think would be the common objects that people today would take?

AA: That is a great question, and as an archaeologist, I think about this idea a lot. On-site, we find simple items such as bowls, jewelry, and humble, protective amulets. People were often wrapped in colorful textiles either clothes or soft furnishings from their homes. Most people buried their everyday objects with them.

Today, we have to think about what would survive. Would it make sense to take our phones or laptops with us? I am not sure. I think people would like to be buried with similar objects as those who were buried in the past: Our favorite ring, a picture of our family, a favorite sweater…

Coptic Jug, 4th-7th Century

 NB: I have been interested in learning more about the role of the curator, thus I want to ask you, how is the process of preparing an exhibition? How are exhibitions born?

AA: The role of the curator, I think, differs depending on one’s field. For example, my role as a keeper of late antique and early Byzantine art and archaeological objects is vastly different than that of my colleagues in the modern and contemporary art area. However, in terms of preparing an exhibition, I think most will agree that exhibitions are born out of a story we want to tell through objects. The process of preparing an exhibition is building that story and then presenting it to a broad and diverse audience.

Art and Peoples of Kharga Oasis Exhibition 

 NB: Since medieval art covers such a large period of time, roughly from the 4th to 15th century, are there specific periods you are most intrigued by? Which ones and why?

AA: The 4th to the 8th centuries in the eastern Mediterranean and Africa are so fascinating because in this period the world witnessed rapid religious changes (polytheism to Christianity to Islam) and political upheaval, but in many ways, the art and material culture remained constant over region and time. People of different faiths and socioeconomic statuses had shared tastes across the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. North Africans were producing some of the best mosaics in the Roman, and later, the Byzantine, empires; Nubians spoke Greek; Ethiopians traveled to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) on diplomatic excursions. This world of late antiquity was global and fluid and vibrant.

NB: Many Medieval artworks that are shared in textbooks and exhibitions depict white figures. How are you changing this to show the underrepresented and educate viewers on a more accurate view of the times?

Medieval art can equate to European art from around the 5th century to the 15th century. In this art, there are representations of Africans. Europeans and Africans were in contact since antiquity through trade and diplomatic exchange, and I try to highlight that story in my work as I did in the recent Crossroads: Power and Piety exhibition. I do not think it is true that medieval artworks in exhibitions depict primarily white figures; for example, our department’s past exhibitions have highlighted the diversity of the medieval world, notably,  Armenia!, Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition (7th – 9th centuries in the eastern Mediterranean). In my work, I also try to challenge people to redefine what we mean when they say “medieval”. My specialty, late antique art from the eastern Mediterranean and Africa, does not fit under the art historical canon of medieval art, but, here I am, at The Met in the Medieval Department. I am also on the board of directors for the International Center of Medieval Art (ICMA). Recently, the ICMA changed its mission statement to say it “… [promotes and supports] the study, understanding, and preservation of visual and material cultures produced primarily between ca. 300 CE and ca. 1500 CE in every corner of the medieval world. To this end, the ICMA facilitates scholarship and education and sponsors public lectures, conferences, publications, and exhibitions.” 

I think, in a generation, people will understand that art of every corner of the medieval world (from France to Ethiopia) is medieval art.

Fragment of Stela, 4th Century

NB: Is your interest for contemporary art as strong as you love for art history? If so, who are the artists of today that you find intriguing and why?

AA: To be honest, I have so much more to learn about the field of contemporary art, but my interest in contemporary art goes hand and hand with my love for the history of art. I have been intrigued about how conversations with contemporary artists can inform my own work, which touches on issues of the African diaspora, critical race theory, appropriation, collective memory, and identity. Conversations with artists about overlapping points of connection between their practice and the practice of artists from late antiquity has been deeply rewarding and has shifted the way I approach my role as a curator.


 Mosaic Glass Fragment, 4th-early 5th century

NB: The Met will not reopen until July or maybe even later. Talk to us about transitioning to now living in isolation. How has working from home impacted you?

AA: One good thing about working in isolation is that it has forced me to slow down. I have been able to take time to reflect on the important aspects of research and writing. I have learned to prioritize my time and recognize the important things on my to-do list. Also, this new virtual space we are all entering has allowed me to reach more people than I could during typical tours at The Met. And, I am very grateful for this opportunity to engage with people across the world.

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