Re-imagining the tomb: A dialogue between ancient and modern Egyptian art
This paper represents the finale in a three part discussion concerning dialogues between contemporary Egyptian art and Egyptology. The first two papers detailed a theoretical and methodological approach for the incorporation of contemporary Egyptian art into Western museum displays of ancient Egyptian daily life (see Tully 2007, Tully 2008). This paper continues within this theme but aims to situate the debate more explicitly within the realm of current Egyptian arts practice.
Since the birth of modern Egyptian art in the first decade of the twentieth century numerous Egyptian artists have drawn inspiration from ancient Egypt. The approach taken and the motivation for this reflection, however, vary greatly between artists and eras (see Winegar 2006). As it is not possible within the remit of this paper to cover one hundred years of creative dialogue between modern Egyptian artists and ancient Egypt, I shall focus solely on a selection of today’s contemporary, independent Egyptian artists. Through a consideration of their work I aim to address the role of the ancient Egyptian past in the current negotiation of artistic, national and international identities within the global arts arena. I focus primarily on Khaled Hafez’s paintings East Temple of Gem and West Temple of Gem (2008), which are currently on display at the Palazzo Piozzo, Rivoli1 as part of the Le Porte del Mediterraneo (The Gates of the Mediterranean) exhibition. 2 As a modern evocation of an ancient Egyptian tomb, the works act as my ‘gateway’ into an exploration of the relevance of the ancient Egyptian past to the modern Egyptian artistic encounter.
The purpose of this work is by no means to essentialise. I am not suggesting an unbroken chain of creative continuity between ancient and modern Egyptian art. Nor am I suggesting a definitive break between the two arts worlds with the influx of Arab-Islamic culture. However, I hope to reveal how elements from the Egyptian past are being interpreted by a number of contemporary Egyptian artists to contribute to current debates on a national and international scale. To achieve this goal I shall first situate ancient Egyptian art within contemporary Western and contemporary Egyptian cultural epistemology. With this contextual information in place I will then turn to my case study. The factors highlighted through Khaled Hafez’s work will be expounded upon through the accompanying discussion of other contemporary Egyptian artists who both actively and subconsciously engage with aspects of ancient culture through their work. From here I will conclude by considering the wider implications of the ancient/contemporary Egyptian art dialogue to communicate new messages to audiences both within and beyond Egypt’s borders.
1-Rivoli is on the outskirts of Turin, north-east Italy.
2-Le Porte del Mediterraneo is curated by Martina Corgnati and runs from the 23rd April -28th September 2008.
Western Egyptomania Verses Egyptian Artistic Invisibility
In 1764 German Art Historian Johann Jochim Wincklemann proposed ancient Egyptian art as the first step in the progressive schema of Western artistic development. 3Although many aspects of ancient Egyptian art did not correspond to the Western, eighteenth century, aesthetic discourse of beauty (Ashfield and Bolla 1996, Dickie 1996), it was acknowledged that from the Egyptians the ancient Greeks took inspiration. For example, British collector Henry Salt 4 viewed ancient Egyptian sculpture as providing the ‘rudiments, if not more’ to the Greeks in terms of artistry (Salt quoted in Halls 1834: 299-300). 5 Similarly, the London Literary Gazette (November 30th 1839: 762-763) discussed the Egyptian bas-reliefs at the British Museum as masterpieces from which the early Greeks ‘avowedly took their ideas.’ The reluctance, however to bestow further artistic credit upon ancient Egypt can perhaps be explained by the continuing Western tendency to view things outside of the European sphere as primitive or exotic. Thus, the emphasis for Western artistic development, as with notions of science, intellectual ancestry and individualism, was placed more heavily on ancient Greece (see Meskell 1999 12-15, Porter 1997).
The propensity for privileging ancient Greece over Egypt in debates concerning Western cultural evolution was enhanced by the manner in which the first items of ancient Egyptian material culture entered the West. Artefacts initially appeared in substantial numbers as the spoils of war, exploration and trade and the lack of knowledge 6 and inappropriate display space 7 in which these items were first brought to public attention (see Moser 2006) did not enable comprehension of the culture. Unlike ancient Greece and Rome, whose language and more naturalistic art forms provided an accessible focus, Western scholars were reluctant to tie themselves fully to ancient Egypt. This did not however prevent the Western appropriation of ancient Egyptian motifs and artistic styles. If anything, this lack of scholarly understanding created a sense of interpretive freedom allowing for the commodification of ancient Egyptian culture in all areas of academic and popular life.
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
1-See Winckelmann, J.J. 1881 .
2- Henry Salt’s (1780-1827) collection of Egyptian antiquities was bought by the British Museum in 1823 (Moser 2006: 93-4).
3- For more modern arguments following this theme see Arnold 2004: 110.
4- The hieroglyphs were not translated by Jean-Francois Champollion until 1822.
5- For example the exhibition of ancient Egyptian antiquities in the Renaissance style galleries of the British Museum in the early 1800s (see Moser 2006).
Egyptian art on the development of modern Western arts practice, the process was somewhat inevitable. As evidenced by the ancient Egyptian influence on the ancient Greeks, artists have always drawn inspiration cross-temporally as well as cross-culturally. Perhaps one of the most famous modern examples of this outward looking approach is the work of sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986). Strongly influenced by pre-Columbian and African sculpture, the incorporation of both culturally foreign and ancient motifs and styles was central to Moore’s work (see Hedgecoe 2003). Turning our gaze towards ancient Egypt, Gauguin’s pieces Ta Matete (We shall not go to the market today, 1892) and Her name is Vairumati (1895) reflect a period in which the artist experimented with the schematic visual language of the ancient Egyptian tomb. Other examples of the ancient Egyptian influence on Western high culture include British Painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) and the poets Shelly, Keats and Byron, all of whom went on to create works inspired by the arrival of the bust of Ramses II at the British Museum (see Darbishire 1927, Conner 1983, Semmel 2000, Leask 2002). These examples are but a few of many that reflect the wider influence of ancient Egyptian art on the whole spectrum of Western creative discourse since the late eighteenth century.
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,
The term craftsmen may be more appropriate in terms of ancient cultures as the concept of ‘the artists’ did not really emerge in the West until the Renaissance. Ethnographic studies have also show that in many societies today this divide between artist and craftsmen does not exist.
This adoption of style was specifically in relation to his paintings of Tahitian women (see Maurer 1998: 153, Walther 2000: 52 and 55).
In 1818 Keats wrote a number poems about ancient Egypt. In the same year Shelly wrote the sonnet Ozymandias, supposedly inspired by the imminent arrival of the bust of Ramses II. Similarly in 1823 Byron refers to the Sarcophagus of Nectanebo in ‘The Age of Bronze.’ (see Conner 1983 – 79).
It was really with arrival of the bust of Ramses II at the British Musuem that ancient Egyptian cultural productions began to be conceived of as Art rather tan simply as a measuring stick to Classical art forms.
In terms modern Egyptomania we seen the influence of historical fiction, such as the Ramses series by Christian Jacq (1995), movies such as The Mummy (both 1959, 1999 versions), and exhibitions such as Tutankhamen and The Golden Age of the Pharaohs at London’s O2 arena and the work of Davies and Putnam (1994, 1995).
Since 1983 there have been at least 27 exhibitions, both permanent and temporary, covering areas of Egyptomania (see www.egyptomania.org)
Haikal 2003), are rare. This paper therefore aims to take steps to correct this imbalance by considering the reasons why many contemporary Egyptian artists draw upon the ancient Egyptian past and how this ancient/modern partnership may contribute to the growing international recognition of contemporary Egyptian artists.
Ancient Egypt and Contemporary Egyptian Art
Through the seemingly unstoppable spread of satellite television over the last two decades, Egypt and the wider Middle East have experienced the explosion of global visual culture. For some this intrusion is believed to have confused identities, but for many contemporary artists it presents an opportunity to make use of hybrid East-West visual alphabets and address a plethora of issues surrounding ‘taken for granted’ dichotomies (Hafez 2008).
No country is hermetically sealed and Egypt, as with any modern nation, represents a hybrid of dialogues. Finding a place between the international fame of Pharaonic and Islamic art, Egyptian folk arts and the roots of modern Western art, contemporary Egyptian art is gradually finding a balance between East and West, and ancient and modern to negotiate split loyalties and gain recognition (Winegar 2000: 9, Karnouk 1988: 19-20). Unlike in Europe, Egyptian artists did not reject the past with the birth of modernism (Winegar 2006: 3). Many Egyptian artists, working in all media continue to, ‘draw inspiration from both their countries rich past and its vibrant living present to communicate their individual creative vision’ (de Montebello 2000: 5). These artists are both local as they are influenced by their ‘cultural overload’ and international as they are immersed in the global debates of contemporary arts practice (Hafez 2008, original emphasis). Maintaining this balance is central to many of today’s most successful Egyptian contemporary artists, whose work is ‘imbued with yet irreducible to culture’ (Winegar 2000: 12). Addressing notions of time, salvation, metamorphosis, the sacred verses consumable, kinetic verses static, gender and identity, numerous contemporary Egyptian artists are opening up new channels of communication through the diverse possibilities presented in ancient Egyptian art and ideology (Hafez 2007, 2008). This dialogue between past and present is particularly evident in the work of contemporary Egyptian painter, video and installation artist, Khaled Hafez.
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
The only substantial examples to date are: The Metropolitan Museum of Art 2000, sections in Winegar 2006, Colla 2007, Hafez 2007, 2008).
For a more detailed discussion of Hafez wider work see Winegar 2008.
evident, for example, in the comparisons made between Anubis and Batman, and Catwoman and Bastet, painted on the frames of magazine models and body builders, which are frequently referenced in Hafez’s work. Revealing an innate human desire for the reshaping of cultures in crisis, Hafez’s art reflects the wider potential of contemporary artistic partnerships between Egypt, ancient and modern, to contribute to modern debate on an international scale. Through irony and humour Hafez uses the commodification of these icons to provoke audiences to consider dichotomies central to modern existence: East/West, ancient/modern, sacred/profane, good/evil. The use of collage within his work and the ‘dripping paint effect’ reinforce the message that these binaries, like his paintings, are constructed. Blurring the boundaries between the social and cultural divides that we tend to take for granted, Hafez’s work also provokes audiences to question the accepted demarcation between traditional and modern within the Egyptian art world (see Winegar 2008, Corgnati 2008).
Repetition is a significant feature of Hafez’s work. Other Pharaonic symbols such as stars and the sky goddess Nut, are also incorporated into a number of pieces. These motifs, however, are all transformed through juxtaposition with images from contemporary visual culture. The sky goddess Nut, for example, is created through the division and elongation of a Western model. Held together by an intelligent message, Hafez uses pop-language in this way to incorporate seemingly disparate elements in the creation of a unified whole. The approach is as powerful as it is hybridist; by using existing icons to create new ones and establish a contemporary narrative Hafez explores relationships between universal elements of human nature, the dichotomies of past/present, East/West and the specificities of various Egyptian identities and their symbolising iconographies (Hafez pers. comms 2008)
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
The ancient Egyptian star motif is most commonly found painted, or in relief, on tomb and temple ceilings.
Egyptian identities is too seldom acknowledged nor successfully communicated (Winegar 2006: 261).
The ancient Egyptian tomb is the perfect context through which to communicate Hafez’s messages on numerous levels. Ancient Egyptian tombs, like contemporary Egyptian art, reflect active choices. As with all works of art the Egyptian mortuary context was meaningfully constituted. Reflecting the overlap and negotiation of individual and social identities (see Carr 1995) the iconographic and epigraphic evidence provided the ancient Egyptians with a voice of their own, capable of speaking directly through the centuries in a manner that archaeological evidence cannot achieve (see Trigger 1998: 18). It is this agency, and the power of painting within the tomb context to speak to audiences, ancient and modern, that Hafez so successfully captures.
The tomb in ancient Egypt was ‘an Egyptian’s greatest investment’ (McDowell 1999: 67). Taking years of preparation and planning, the tomb was a constant visual reminder to the ancient Egyptians of their mortality. Negotiating between the realms of life and death (see e.g. Lloyd 1989, Hornung 1992), the tomb provided the most powerful channel for social communication, establishing notions of individuality and identity that find resonance within Hafez’s modern message. ‘Wall paintings were not simply part of a decorative schema but were simultaneously symbolic and functional images loaded with specific meanings about order and harmony in this life and the maintenance of a parallel unity and perfection in the next life’ (Meskell 2002: 135). The tomb chapel is also significant as it was the main space in which we experience two-dimensional painting within ancient Egypt. Although often the result of poor stone, unsuitable for relief carving, the flat ‘canvas’ of the tomb wall also provides greater parallels with the traditions of contemporary painting. Acting as a place of dialogue between the ancient Egyptians and the dead (see Baines 1991, Baines and Lacovara 2002), Hafez adopts the context of communion to encourage discourse between artist, audience and Egypt, ancient and modern. The tomb space, an intimate place of contemplation and respect is also the ideal environment in which to encourage viewers to stop and reflect upon these themes.
From Hafez to el Mestikawy
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
Hafez focuses specifically on the tombs of the noble at Thebes. These tombs differed to those of royalty as they were much smaller in size and combined representations of daily life alongside religious scenes, whereas Royal tomb chapels were dominated by religious iconography (see Hodel-Hoenes 1991).
The quality of stone in the areas which were to become resting places for the dead, such as the necropolis at Thebes, was often poor in comparison with the high quality limestone that was specifically quarried for the construction of ancient Egyptian temples.
engagement with the unifying discourse of the ancient and modern superhero icon to part serendipity, Hafez also acknowledges the embedded nature of ancient Egypt within universal memory. The impact of ‘the thousands of subliminal messages delivered by the detritus of cumulative imaging that is branded within Egypt, ancient and contemporary’ is particularly powerful within contemporary Egyptian art due to the saturation of ancient Egyptian imagery from childhood (Hafez 2008). The ‘embedded nature’ of ancient Egyptian visual language is particularly evident in the narrative aspect of the art form – the combination of word and image. Hafez (2008) suggests that this trend towards graphism, instigated by the ancient Egyptians, was never interrupted and is present today, on a global scale, in the guise of comic books, film strips and newspapers. Pertaining to contemporary Egyptian art, we see this specific reflection of ancient Egypt through the epigraphic and iconographic partnerships evident in the work of artists such as Mohammed Abla, Adel el Siwi, Huda Lotfi, Ibrahim el Dessouki, and Sabah Naim.
Adel el Siwi and Mohamed Abla are two artists of the same generation who synthesise the textual and the figurative in their work. As neither claims the conscious infusions of ancient Egyptian style or ideology in their painting, Hafez (pers comms 2008) traces their painting practice to his concept of ‘innate’ ancient Egypt visual culture, subconsciously inspired by ancient relief and wall painting. In the case of Abla this connection manifests itself in the way that the text seems to float over the surface of the painting, reminiscent of ancient painted surfaces. In the case of el Siwi, the vertical aspect of writing appears within his paintings in what Hafez calls the “cartouche solution”, used by ancient Egyptians, and later adopted in French and Italian Renaissance styles in different ways (Hafez pers. comms 2008).
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
Hafez attributes his first unification of East/West icons, in 1995, to a Western super model given the head of Anubis. ‘The top model used in the collage was posed in a position making reference to ancient Egyptian painted profiles. I felt that the piece still needed something and it seemed natural to give her the mask of Anubis’ (Pers. Comms. 2008).
For discussions of Ibrahim el Dessouki and Sabah Naim see Hafez 2008.
Abstract modernist painter Farouk Hosney also acknowledges the possibility of subconscious ancient Egyptian influence on his work. He suggests that if anything reminiscent of ancient Egyptian emerges in his work ‘it is because it is a natural part of himself.’ (quote in Winegar 2000: 18).
Training as a cultural historian developed the use of juxtapositions and the fusing of boundaries in Lotfi’s work. This is evident not only through the influence of ancient Egyptian but also African, Coptic, Arab, Indian and Sufi culture in her work (see Staines 2000).
strong personal messages that both reflect upon the Egyptian present and the wider human condition. For example, the combination of ancient and popular icons in her work ‘the mummified statuettes of Umm Kalthoum’ unite an ancient Egyptian tradition designed to preserve members of society for eternity, with the loss of a modern national heroine who represented an age of secular modernity and national Egyptian pride (Hafez, Pers Comms. 2008).
The incorporation of ancient Egypt, intentional or subconscious, is not confined to the realm of painting. Contemporary Egyptian sculptors also make reference to various aspects of ancient Egyptian artistic concepts and technique in their work. Adam Henien, for example, aims to capture and recall ‘the spirit of ancient Egypt’ in his work. In search of the ‘perfect essence’. Henien’s work moves beyond questions of identity to reflect personal, social, religious and international choices that are not confined by ancient Egypt but take part in a wider dialogue with the international art world (Winegar 2000:10). Similarly, on the conceptual level, we can confidently describe sculptor Hazem el Mestikawy’s practice as temporally and culturally hybrid. Seamlessly assimilating ancient Egyptian art, Islamic art and architecture, as well as contemporary minimal art philosophies, el Mestikawy ‘deconstructs, or rather dismantles centuries-old motifs that are embedded in Egyptian and Middle East cultures’ (Hafez 2008). Sculptor Ahmad Askalani incorporates the kinetic aspect of ancient Egyptian art into his work. Sculptural installation 13 Cats (2003) captures the fluidity of movement evident in ancient Egyptian tomb painting “herding Nebamun”, which draws the viewer into a ‘living’ narrative.
Conclusion – Egyptology, Contemporary Art and Contemporary Debate
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
Henien also claims Sufi influence on work (Winegar 2000: 22).
contemporary Egyptian art to contribute to audiences’ perspectives on modern Egypt, the world and themselves.