My first encounter with the Egyptians was in Primary school when I sat in the glass-topped part of the library and smiled smugly at the idea of civilizations with glamorous queens as their leaders. I carefully copied hieroglyphs with a sharp pencil and decided the world would be so much better if we all wrote with alphabets that included: birds! Imagine, for instance, if all the full stops on this page were instead teeny parrots. Now wouldn’t that look a whole lot nicer?
Departing from papyrus and the flood plains of the Nile, the next time I met with Egypt was as a ten year old when Cleopatra the – frankly, amazing – girl band came about. Fronted by the youngest sister whose name actually was Cleopatra,I this time thought: wouldn’t life be so much better if my name was Cleopatra and I had a head full of black braids instead of mousy brown lankness?
Since then, my historical studies have been largely limited to the ‘Modern’ era, with brief forays into the ‘Ancient World’ only including Greece and Rome. Aside from those like My Dearest who once desired to base his degree on Middle Egyptian grammar, I do not think I am alone in having an awfully romanticized and somewhat promiscuous relationship with Ancient Egypt.
Pharoah: King of Egypt, the British Museum touring exhibition currently on show at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until 21st July, does not, from the title, promise either a roaring celebration of feminism for school children, nor a lesson in how to look cool in the 90s. It is, however, a deceptively soft and aesthetically marvelous exhibition that should be as much of interest to art students as it is to history ones.
It usurps assumptions and rough images of Egypt without trumpet-blowing and without elongated text panels. Instead, in a quiet fashion, this lovely collection of items from the British Museum subtly pervades and replaces what we thought we knew of this civilization and its people. One of the best ways in which it does this is with the use of colour. The Ancient Egypt of collective memory is not painted in the red, white and black of Tahrir Square today, but instead is brown. Lots of shades of brown. Such as golden brown for the sand; dank sticky brown for the banks of the Nile and terracotta brown for the imagined stones of the hot streets. And where is the brown in Bristol Museum? Present, yes, but continually intersected with brilliant flashes of blue faience. The sky and the sea of Egypt are here with the land; the combined elements creating a more complete picture of a world already drowned in the soup of history.
This Aegean blue pops up in almost every display cabinet. It is there on a faience and gold tile with the title of Pharaoh Amenhotep III from 1390 – 1352 BCE which shines in deep turquoise and also on a faience shabti of Pharaoh Pinudjem from 1069 – 656 BCE which looks slightly Gauguin-esque with its simplistic, but expressive line markings. This colour brings warmth to the displays and ignites the coldness of stone and papyrus.
The stone, it must be said, is in quite remarkably good condition. Even limestone, notorious for decaying – I say, as I sit in a Georgian building, which looks set to disintegrate at any moment – is presented here looking quite new. See, for example, the limestone stela of Tjetji from around 2070 BCE, intricately engraved with the very same hieroglyphs that first had me excited in the Beech Grove library. Here, though, my favourite birds share space with other delicate creatures – a miniscule hare jumping across water and the head of an impala-like animal, posed coquettishly. If British Museum employees could be coerced into taking such good care of Royal York Crescent and the Wills Memorial building there would be little worry of them not being here 3000 years from now.
Equally well-preserved are the delicate examples of jewelry. The gold signet ring with the name of Pharaoh Amenhotep II from 1427 – 1400 BCE looks both surprisingly sturdy and a fine example of sophisticated workmanship. My favourite one, though is the inlaid ornament of a winged scarab holding a sun-disc from 1800 – 1874 BCE. The beetle, reminiscent of a dragonfly, is crafted in tiny flecks of brightly coloured filigree-esque metal work. Awareness of the painstaking craftsmanship that went into the production of these objects draws us away from the Horrible Histories version of the Egyptians in which brains are pulled out of noses and towards a history that celebrates human endevour in the arts and notices the importance placed on beauty by societies past.
Interestingly, given the exhibition’s title, the overall emphasis of the exhibition is not only on Pharaohs. There are a host of characters present, both male and female who, along with the noted craftsmanship of the delicate objects, ensure that the years between Ancient Egypt and now concertina into almost nothing. Looking at the faces of many figurines, I detect the individuality of those whose image they were created in. Many moments were spent staring at the bronze figurine of a royal consort from 1069 – 656 BCE. Her tiny waist and soft, rounded thighs are closeted in a long skirt which morphs from being metal to fabric and back again. She is beautiful and she is human. She is the reason you dream to spend a Night in the Museum and watch the objects come alive.
Again, with a Theban granodiorite statue of Sennefer, from 1479 – 1426 BCE, the shape of knees pulled up to a chest underneath cloth is created out of rock which turns first to liquid and then into fabric. Out of these simple shapes, so much expression emerges. I am reminded of the Persepolis cartoon by Marjane Satrapi in which shapes crafted from a few monochrome lines can bespeak of the most complex of emotions.
If nothing else, Pharaoh: King of Egypt is a great opportunity to see a fantastic selection of British Museum exhibits both outside of Bloomsbury and without having to bulldoze your way through legions of school children. The intimacy granted by the setting allows the viewer the necessary time to watch these inanimate objects display signs of the humans whose hands created them and whose images inspired them.
I wonder, even now, if there is a better name. Maybe Venus?