The Guardian, Saturday 10 January 2009
In Room 61 of the British Museum you will soon be able to see some of the most beautiful paintings ever to come out of Egypt. The 11 brilliant fragments, dating to approximately 1350BC, were acquired in 1822 and - until 1997, when they became the subjects of the largest conservation project ever undertaken by the museum - they were on constant exhibition. And so the tall young man fowling in the marshes with his son holding on to his leg will be familiar to many visitors, as will the four musicians and the naked dancing-girls. What's new is the curatorial approach adopted in Room 61.
I never used to like the Egyptian galleries in the British Museum. For a start, mummies on show make me uncomfortable, whether in London or Cairo. I won't go on about that since we all know that mummies are a major crowd-puller. But for all the exhibits (as well as being supremely so for the mummies - but no matter) there was a painful sense of displacement. Powerful kings from 5,000 years ago struck solitary poses as they stood captive in the cold and gloomy halls; for each, instead of his five complex and highly significant names, a small placard bearing one Latinised name that meant nothing. Every one of these figures had been painstakingly sculpted and installed in a palace or a temple in Egypt for a purpose completely negated by their present plight. When you came across pharaonic artefacts in Egypt, even ruined ones, they were part of the landscape. Here, they were the spoils of victory, the visible proof of Egyptian defeat.
Once my attention was caught by a guide leading his group through the Egyptian hall. He was encouraging them to express disgust at the transparent dresses of the Egyptian ladies, revulsion at the perfumed cones on their heads. He made the bemused, elderly Americans pass and repass in front of Sekhmet, an aspect of Hat-hor, goddess of love and beauty - lion-headed, wrathful, manifesting the destructive potential of love. He urged them to step across the goddess's line of vision: "The Egyptians thought she'd curse you, but she can't. Step right up to her . . ." It wasn't an official museum tour, but still . . .
The curator of the new gallery is Richard Parkinson, assistant keeper of pharaonic culture at the museum, and his approach can be said to address - and perhaps even to redress - all this. It is empathetic, imaginative, highly professional and very post-colonial. Parkinson's specific area is the poetry of Egypt's classical age (1940BC to 1640BC) and a few years ago he wrote a paper arguing that the time had come to examine this poetry as literature rather than merely ethnographic documentation. He also argued that to appreciate the poetry you had to be able to imagine it in performance, and urged a parallel with the difference in experience between seeing the lyrics of an Umm Kulsoum song on the page and attending a concert by the great 20th-century Egyptyian diva.
Now, in Room 61, he tries to recreate the setting of the fragments, to help the viewer experience something as close as possible to actually walking into the burial house of Neb-Amun now lost in the desert west of Luxor. An interactive computer simulation shows you what the house would have looked like in its natural setting - and then there are the paintings: Neb-Amun fowling in the marshes; a party with musicians, dancing-girls, stacks of wine-jars and lots of elegant guests; Neb-Amun examining the livestock and produce of his lands, and so on. They've been called the work of the Michelangelo of antiquity, and Parkinson, in the book that accompanies the exhibition, The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Neb-Amun, shows us why.
The burial house (or tomb-chapel as it's called here) had to conform to certain requirements: an inviting façade and front yard, one or two (or more) pleasant rooms for the family of the deceased to come and visit and offer food and prayers, and an underground, sealed room for the burial. Within these parameters, the artists could deploy their inventiveness.
In Neb-Amun's house the meticulous design combined with the flair and fluidity of execution to produce dazzling results. Parkinson points out how the party scene and Neb-Amun's table of offerings would be the first scenes to catch the sunlight, and how the cleverest bits of each scene are positioned at eye-level to the viewer. He explains the techniques used to achieve certain effects, to draw the eye of the beholder: the "highlighted" quality of Neb-Amun himself achieved by painting the red ochre of his skin over a layer of brilliant white. Or the lustre of the women's hair and décolletage achieved by brushing them with glittering beeswax.
One of the most touching things about this exhibition is that it enables you to see the artist at work. As some of the creamy white used for the background, for example, has worn off, it has revealed the bars of a chair put in the wrong place, painted over and repositioned, or the staff held by Neb-Amun pulled in closer to his body. The corrections, Parkinson says, are always in the direction of making the composition tighter, the picture fuller.
Neb-Amun must have been pleased. Solid in his position in the accountancy department at Karnak, married to "the lady of the house, whom he loves", and blessed with at least one child, he was in a position to commission the must-have of the gentleman, his burial house. And what a house he got. The commentary on the exhibition makes a little too much, I think, of the fact that they express an "idealised" portrait of the life of the "elite"; that they are "aspirational" representations of a life that the common, labouring Egyptian was not in a position to have. You could say the same of any formal portrait of well-to-do folk in any society that had reason to be pleased with itself - and Egypt, in 1350BC, had plenty.
This was the reign of Amenhotep III. In a few years his son, Amenhotep IV, would change his name to Akhenaten and set in motion the crisis that would almost destroy the state. But when Neb-Amun was building his burial house the country was enjoying an economic boom, international relations and trade were at their most expansive, and the land hummed with great construction projects. Egypt was at the pinnacle of the classical phase of its civilisation. Three reigns previously, Tuthmosis III had taken on the kings and chieftains nibbling away at his borders and won decisive victories that spread Egyptian hegemony to the Fourth Cataract south and well into Syria in the north, establishing, in fact, what was then a "global" empire. Ra, Egypt's sun-god, instead of overseeing the Nile Valley, became - as Tuthmosis described - the god "who seeth the whole earth hourly". Thebes was not just the heart of the empire but a cosmic capital. And Karnak was its Whitehall. And Neb-Amun was in charge of a portion of the treasure flowing into and out of it.
The pleasant burial house is part of the Egyptians' constant attempt to turn death into something they could live with. At this happy moment in Egypt's history, Neb-Amun's artists presented him with a burial house exuberant with comfort and optimism. It puts the question: What death is this that so teems with life?
Parkinson says that the new gallery aims to present its exhibits as art, and to spark a dialogue between the living and the dead. The director of the museum, Neil MacGregor, has argued that it was established for the benefit of all nations, and he is seeking to return the institution to the founding principles parliament set for it in 1753: "to allow visitors to address through objects, both ancient and more recent, questions of contemporary politics and international relations." Well, the new gallery is in the eye of the storm of both contemporary politics and international relations. It's just as well that MacGregor believes the museum's remit to be "about understanding the world, both through the past and through what's going on now", because everything about the gallery, from the acquisition of the exhibits to its funding and naming, represents a spectacular learning opportunity.
By a curious coincidence, another "message" that reaches us from 1350BC - besides the Neb-Amun paintings - is the "Amarna Correspondence": some 300 letters on clay tablets that were stored in the royal archives in Akhenaten's city, n ow Amarna. Mainly from Canaanite chiefs to Egypt's pharaohs and written over a period of about 30 years, they paint a picture of Egypt's relationship with Palestine and her investment in the rich coastal trading cities of Gaza and Acca. Among them are nine letters asking for Egypt's help in repelling marauders.
I am writing this article in Cairo. Out of my window I can see the 15th of May flyover. The traffic is slow because a kind of checkpoint has been set up on one of its exits as the government tries to control the protests sweeping the country. In my living-room the TV is switched off because I'm trying to finish this piece. I began it inspired by my visit to the gallery in early December and I'm trying to finish it now and not be distracted by what's going on, by the news, by the cause of the protests, by Gaza.
There have been demonstrations in support of the people of Gaza across the world. And in many places the embassy of Egypt was targeted by the protesters alongside the embassies of Israel and the US. Under tremendous popular pressure our deeply unpopular government has agreed to open the Egyptian border with Gaza for a couple of hours every day to bring in the more seriously wounded. But it continues to provide petrol and gas to the Israelis for a fraction of market price and to carry out mass detentions of protesters.
The political configuration which led to the British Museum acquiring the Neb-Amun paintings, and displaying them today, also led to what is happening in Gaza. The interest that rival European powers took in Egypt and the Holy Land from the beginning of the 19th century, the casual racism that led them to believe that they could do what they wanted with the natives' lands and their history, the ignorance of the local rulers and the carelessness of the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople, were all part of this configuration.
The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Neb-Amun does not shrink from describing how the men working for Henry Salt, the British consul, hacked into the paintings on the walls of Neb-Amun's burial-house "with knives and saws, outlining rectangular pieces that they then prised away . . . with implements such as crow-bars". To carry off choice sections of a scene, whole contexts were destroyed. A young woman sits next to her friend at the party. The saw hacks through the crown of her head, severing the stalk of the lotus flower in her hair, cutting through the colourful headband, slicing down behind her ear then dividing into an inverted delta of damage, one branch snaking down her chest and arm, the other reaching across her shoulder to her friend. The brutality is astonishing.
In a later stage of the same historical moment, another set of English and Frenchmen took a hack-saw to the lands of the defeated Ottoman empire. They couldn't carry away the fragments, but they tried to own them, and they gave away one: Palestine. We are still living the effects of their actions.
The funding for the exhibition in Room 61 is also related to this process: the gallery enjoys the generous financial assistance of the R and S Cohen Foundation established by Sir Ronald Cohen and his wife Sharon Harel-Cohen. It is named the Michael Cohen Gallery in an English variant of the name of the Labour peer's father: Michel Mourad Cohen, a Syrian Jew who left Egypt in 1957 in the aftermath of the Suez war, when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt. Sir Ronald himself, known as the father of venture capitalism, was born in Egypt. He was 11 when the family left for England, but remains invested in the affairs of the Middle East.
"If you look at my history," he has said, "born in Egypt, a refugee, married to the daughter of the commander of the Exodus who's an Israeli, there's an obvious connection between me and the region. I can empathise with the Arab world to a greater degree than the average person would, yet at the same time I can empathise with the Israelis." In 1998, he was among a select group presented with Israel's highest tribute, the Jubilee award, recognising him as "one of the visionaries who have done the most to facilitate Israel's integration into the global economy and to realise its world-class business potential".
In 2005 he established the Portland Trust to help the Palestinians "build up a powerful economy . . . based on a deep level of interdependence with Israel". Even though the United Nations has cited Israel's policy of encirclement and checkpoints as the principle reason for the devastated economy of Palestinian cities, Sir Ronald, with an entrepreneur's optimism, wonders if you can have "a different approach to checkpoints, which turns them into points of economic interchange rather than just for security?"
The historical process which broke up the Neb-Amun paintings, made a refugee of Ronald Cohen and is killing the children of Gaza, is still in motion. Where will it take us next? The British Museum, in this gallery that took 10 years of planning and fundraising, has elicited happy outcomes from the first two events. There can be none from the third. But maybe we can learn? If that is the BM's remit, can the gallery dedicated to Cohen, a Syrian Jew from Egypt, by his British son, help us learn something about ourselves, and about history, that would help us stop the bloodshed?