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Visions of Ancient Egypt at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich

Coinciding with two important anniversaries – the bicentenary of Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs and the centenary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – this ground-breaking exhibition will be the first to explore Western fascination with ancient Egypt side-by-side with Egypt’s own engagement with its ancient past, inviting audiences to debate and discuss who these visions serve both then and now.

Fragment of a sunk relief_ heads of female attendants, Dynasty XVIII (c.1370 BC), Egypt, El-Amarna, Sainsbury Centre Collection.

Exploring constructed fantasies of ancient Egypt that have been re-imagined and re-invented across centuries of art and design, ‘Visions of Ancient Egypt supported by Viking’ will reveal a visual history closely entwined with conquest and colonialism.

Opening with a spotlight on Cleopatra, the exhibition will explore the ways in which her identity has been reinterpreted throughout history – from the wise scholar of medieval Arabic tradition to the glamorous Hollywood icon embodied by Elizabeth Taylor. A 1759 socialite’s portrait as Cleopatra by Joshua Reynolds will be featured alongside Cleopatra by Chris Ofili, depicting her as a Black queen.

Nefertiti (Black Power), Awol Erizku, 2018 © The Artist, Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.

The exhibition will show how Egypt became embedded in the Western artistic imagination in the 18th century, despite most artists and designers not having visited Egypt themselves.

Artists such as Josiah Wedgwood and Giovanni Battista Piranesi relied on a vision of ancient Egypt mediated through ancient Rome and the classical lens. Highlight objects will include a Roman Osiris-Canopus jar, works by Wedgwood and illustrated Western travelogues. These travelogues will be contrasted with medieval Arabic manuscripts, responding to the same sites and monuments, in order to distinguish the European ‘rediscovery’ of ancient Egypt from Egypt’s own unbroken engagement with its ancient past.

Egyptian Head Disappearing into Descending Clouds, David Hockney, 1961 © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery).

In the 19th century, in the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s’ campaigns in Egypt, an image of ancient Egypt cemented in the Western imagination that emphasised its exoticism and monumental scale. The exhibition will trace the transmission of this image through works in many media including oil painting, watercolours, lithography and photography, as well as large numbers of objects in museums garnered from growing archaeological excavations. The exhibition will also highlight how world fairs contributed to the spread of ancient Egyptian imagery, notably the Great Exhibition in 1851.

“Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra” by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92).

Whilst ancient Egyptian motifs were used as propaganda for the French and British imperial regimes, at the same time the Egyptian state was increasingly taking ownership of this history and imagery. On public display for the first time will be a striking garniture de cheminée (mantlepiece ornament) made by French goldsmith Emile Froment-Meurice that was commissioned in pharaonic style by Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt from 1863-1879, as a gift for the P&O shipping company.

The Fourth Plinth Belongs to Her – Sara Sallam.

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 unleashed ‘Tutmania’ around the world and the exhibition will examine the ways in which this much photographed archaeological excavation shaped the Art Deco style, influencing fashion, architecture and design.

Jewellery by Van Cleef and Arpels, 1920s and ’30s eveningwear and a book cover design for Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile will show how a fascination for Egypt seeped into every part of cultural life in the West. In Egypt the same discovery fed into the development of a nationalist style of modern art that came at a time of increasing demand for independence.

In the final section, the exhibition will bring together for the first time international contemporary artists who offer a powerful critique of constructed visions of ancient Egypt.

Famous images such as the bust of Nefertiti continue to be re-interpreted and re-imagined to highlight contemporary issues of race and identity, as with Awol Erizku’s (b. 1988) Nefertiti (Black Power). Amongst other works, a multidisciplinary work by Sara Sallam (b. 1991), The Fourth Pyramid Belongs To Her, explores contemporary Egyptians’ relationship with their 3 pharaonic ancestors, while Maha Maamoun’s (b. 1972) Domestic Tourism II reinscribes the pyramids in Egypt’s own social and political context.

Exhibition link is here