Re-imagining the tomb: A dialogue between ancient and modern Egyptian art

Literature covering the West’s preoccupation with ancient Egypt can be found in abundance. Generally discussed under the title of ‘Egyptomania’ or the ‘Egyptian revival’, the incorporation of ancient Egypt into Western culture encompassed sculpture (e.g. Herzer et al 1986), painting (e.g. Conner 1993, Clayton 1982, Jacobs 1995), architecture (e.g. 2002, 2005 Curl) and diverse elements of popular culture (e.g. Reid 2002). In terms of the specific influence of ancient

Today, although our knowledge of ancient Egypt has greatly advanced, Western Egyptomania is still very much alive. From historical fiction to movies and art and archaeology exhibits, the ancient Egyptian ‘brand’ still has the power to captivate audiences. Interestingly, however, the West has become more self-aware of this fascination. Exhibitions in museums and galleries discussing Egyptomania in its many forms are appearing with increasing frequency. Similarly, historic items from earlier ‘waves’ of Egyptomania are now being sold to enthusiastic bidders in Western auction houses (e.g. Bonhams 2008). However, academic texts and popular representations that consider the influence of ancient Egypt on the modern Egyptian nation outside of a nationalist context (e.g. Gershoni and Jankowski1986, 1995, Mitchell 1991, 2001, Reid 1997, 2002, Hasssan 2003,

Hafez’s painting and collage work has since 1995 increasingly focused on the assimilation of ancient Egyptian and contemporary icons. Representing what Hafez feels is the ‘universal human quest for salvation, the search for superheroes who transcend the laws of nature’, his work reflects the ‘culture of recycling’, ‘non-coincidental repetitions’ and how aspects of ancient Egyptian art have influenced today’s universal visual culture (Pers. Comms 2008). This is

In his most recent installation, East Temple of Gem and West Temple of Gem, Hafez again unites ancient Egyptian and modern global icons. The pieces, purposefully installed in a small room of the Palazzo Piozzo, lit only by two spots, evoke the space and atmosphere of an ancient Egyptian tomb. Through this setting Hafez provokes his audience to consider how aspects of imagery and human nature have not changed for over 3,500 years. The work also addresses what Hafez feels to be the common mis-statement in today’s art world: that art, to be contemporary, cannot be beautiful. The work is both contemporary and beautiful, and whilst highlighting the universal quest for the superhero, is specific to Egypt in the sense that the pieces confront the irony of modern Egyptian identity battles (Pers. Comms 2008). Containing motifs not only from ancient Egypt and the modern media but also from Arab-Islamic, Mediterranean, and Judeo-Christian sub-identities, Hafez sees the work as a ‘statement of identity.’ Reflecting how Egyptian identity is ‘accumulative and should not be divided into one thing or another’ (Pers. Comms 2008), this perspective is reiterated by modern Egyptian art collector Khalid Wagdi, who believes that the fusion of

From the revival of ancient materials to the evocation of mood, Egyptian artists are utilising multiple elements of ancient Egyptian visual language to contribute to the contemporary messages of their work. In terms of the unification of modern and ancient Egyptian icons I once again find my starting point with the work of Khaled Hafez. Attributing his first

Huda Lotfi is a contemporary Egyptian artist who willingly acknowledges the influence of ancient Egyptian art in the incorporation of text and image in her work. Her installations also frequently evoke feelings of awe reminiscent of ancient Egyptian sacred spaces such as tombs and temples. These pieces however, are not ‘lost to the past’ but contain

From the incorporation of icons to the combination of word and image, this discussion reveals how contemporary Egyptian artists are engaging with ancient Egypt in a plurality of ways. Reflecting how visions of the present can be enhanced by juxtaposition with the past, these artists are creating works that actively engage with both inter and intra-national debate. Although coming from specific cultural and personal contexts, Egyptian artists as social commentators can communicate cross-culturally telling stories about the past, present and future beyond the limitations of the word. The combination of internationally familiar elements of ancient Egyptian and modern Western visual culture in the creation of something ‘new’ has the potential to create a dialogic relationship between modern Egypt, ancient Egypt and audience beyond Egypt’s borders. I have only begun to touch on the individuals and concepts involved in this relationship; however I hope to have opened up the topic for further debate and enhanced international recognition of the potential of