New exhibit shows how the West created the fantasy of ancient Egypt
The fantasy of Egypt – its golden pharaohs, hidden treasures and unsolved mysteries – continues to fascinate us, more than 2,000 years after the fall of ancient Egyptian civilization. But how true is this golden, mystical story – and how modern is it?
A new exhibition Visions of ancient Egyptopened on September 3 at the Sainsbury Center in Norwich, England, addresses this question on the eve of the anniversaries of the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics (September 27, 1822) and the discovery of the generous tomb of Tutankhamun (November 4, 1922).
“A mirage is a good way to describe what we are trying to deal with in this exhibition,” says Theo Weiss, assistant curator at the University of East Anglia museum. “We put aside what we think we know about Egypt and try to figure out how this idea came about in the first place.”
A Western colonial mindset is behind our modern and popular impressions of ancient Egyptian culture, Weiss says. “Historically, Egypt has often been used for very deliberate political purposes,” he says. “Western powers have attempted to create a vision of Egypt that is used to advance their own political agendas. This is true for the Napoleonic wars, or Augustus and the Romans, or the British Empire – and up to the present day.
The show can therefore be seen as a decolonial gesture. It is, in fact, listed in the Sainsbury Centre’s 2021 article ‘Decolonisation Activity’, where it is described as ‘[exploring] the enduring influence of ancient Egypt, through the prism of decolonization and alternative histories”. The document describes the means by which the museum works to “decolonize the gallery space”, such as “revealing colonial histories and the provenance of objects with an emphasis on transparency” and engaging with an audience. more inclusive.
Visions of ancient Egypt takes a largely chronological approach to displaying the more than 200 works on display. The majority of the Sainsbury Centre’s small collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts will be on display, including its ‘shawabti’, figurines used in ancient Egyptian burial practices. But most items are on loan across the UK, Europe and the Middle East.
A few large-scale pieces are on loan from the British Museum, including a marble bust of Jupiter Serapis (1st-2nd century AD), a fertility god from ancient Egyptian tradition who made his way into Greek and Roman culture . An alabaster canopic jar – used to hold exhumed organs from mummified bodies – decorated with the ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife, Osiris, comes from the Dutch royal collection. It will be displayed alongside a pot made in 1790 by the English manufacturer of porcelain and luxury accessories Wedgwood, on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which copied the design of the canopic to create an object of all days to use in UK homes.
Familiar characters from ancient Egypt feature in the show. The opening section examines how Cleopatra has been reinterpreted throughout history, from the wise scholar of medieval Arabic literature to the glamorous siren played by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 film. The show will also include Joshua’s 18th-century portrayal. Reynolds of a socialite dressed as Cleopatra and the painting by Chris Ofili Cleopatra (1992), which presents her as a black queen.
Another section discusses the monumental legacy of Tutankhamun, the teenage pharaoh who reigned from 1332 to 1323 BC. It will include archival photographs of the discovery of the tomb, which sparked international “Tutmania”. The images are displayed alongside objects that show how the discovery of the tomb influenced the design of clothing, jewelry and furniture in the 1920s.
Visions of ancient Egypt not only aims to unravel the ways in which the image of Egypt has been shaped by the West, but it also includes works by modern and contemporary Egyptian artists who critique the constructed visions of their pharaonic ancestors. Shown in the last section of the exhibition, it will feature artists such as Awol Erizku, Chant Avedissian, Maha Maamoun and Sara Sallam. Sallam’s multidisciplinary work The fourth pyramid belongs to him (2016-18) explores the strange dichotomy of the pyramids of Giza as a popular tourist site and veritable mausoleums once considered sacred.
Sallam created the work while dealing with the death of his own grandmother and transposed photographs from the family archive onto images of the archaeological site and snapshots taken from Egyptian popular culture. “We look at mummies and consume them visually without any connection. We no longer see ancient Egyptian sites as places of mourning,” Sallam says. Search for The fourth pyramid belongs to him led Sallam to historical records like documents of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. “The way they documented Egypt affected our perception of what we now call ‘archaeological’ or ‘touristy’ places,” she says.
For the show’s companion post, Sallam wrote a piece explaining how she realizes that even her own perspective as an Egyptian is, in fact, influenced by Western interpretations. “I see my work as a reflection of my ongoing journey of unlearning the exoticism of my own ancient heritage,” she writes. “Reclaiming the representations of my ancestors and finding ways to decolonize my gaze.
• Visions of ancient Egypt, Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, 3 September-1 January 2023. The exhibition is sponsored by Viking