Saffron Walden Museum.
16th November – 23rd February 2014.
The temporary exhibition Re-Imagining Egypt begins with a direct question – “What does Egypt conjure up in your imagination?” This exhibition is designed to challenge preconceptions and traditional Western representations of Egypt by exploring daily life, identity, cultural and religious influences from 300,000 years of Egyptian history. Drawing upon the Museum’s impressive permanent collection, contemporary art, and community responses this exhibition provides an important and diverse range of perspectives in its interpretation.Re-Imagining Egypt is arranged thematically, taking subjects from daily life such as textiles, beauty, protective charms, and pottery to explore similar objects dating from Predynastic to 21st century Egypt. The objects have been selected to represent the lives of ordinary Egyptians, with all pieces made by a singular artist or craftsperson. The exhibition provides a unique opportunity to directly compare objects from across the breadth of Egyptian history, highlighting the similarities and continuity of the themes they represent and uniting the human story and Egyptian lived experience across different cultures and religions.
To bridge the gap between the past and the present Re-Imagining Egypt displays artistic responses alongside its artefacts. Egyptian contemporary artist and artist-in-residence Khaled Hafez created new works inspired by the Museum’s collection and worked with school children from the local community to create group artworks, also incorporated into the exhibition.In addition to this the exhibition space is shared by quotes from the wider Egyptian community. These phrases, taken from exhibition curator Gemma Tully’s PhD research into Egyptian perceptions of identity and history, serves to centre the exhibition and the objects on display. Displaying new artworks and quotes side-by-side with the objects and history that inspired them adds new and dynamic layers of interpretation to existing object stories. The effect of this is a unique multi-vocality and a sense of shared authorship that challenges the traditional authority of the museum voice and encourages visitors to see things differently.
This multi-layered approach to interpretation mirrors Hafez’s own views on the layers of Egyptian history and the complexity of Egyptian identity, which he describes as “cumulative, interwoven and intertwined.” It was particularly interesting to hear Hafez’s thoughts on how different cultures and nationalities have left codes running through Egyptian art, adopted and reproduced over time – an influence evident in his own work displayed in the exhibition. Khaled Hafez has created four artworks for display – Saffron Angels I and II, and Drawing Saffron by the Day I and II – within which he builds upon Egypt’s historic practice of “painting with narrative.”Gemma Tully, Visitor Services and Learning Officer and curator of Re-Imagining Egypt, explained how community archaeology lay at the heart of this exhibition, reflecting current approaches and research in heritage interpretation. This exhibition stands out as particularly unique for its approach of bringing together and voicing different community groups that have a shared interest in the collection. Leading up to the exhibition Saffron Walden Museum hosted six sessions with local school groups that have demonstrated the value of object-centred learning. Arranged chronologically, and culminating in the Egyptian revolution, the sessions studied different periods of Egyptian history incorporating relevant objects from the Museum’s handling collection.
Re-Imagining Egypt is a collaborative exhibition that explores new and creative partnerships, and succeeds in uniting art and artefact, ancient and modern, East and West. It stands as an inspiring and engaging exhibition that brings an important international and cross-cultural persepctive to a local collection.
I would like to thank Saffron Walden Museum and the Egypt Exploration Society for organising an exclusive view of the exhibition, as well as curator Gemma Tully and artist-in-residence Khaled Hafez for fascinating talks on their exhibition experiences.