Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Sketch like an Egyptian

Amenophis III
Yesterday, The Other Half and I headed into central London to visit the British Museum for the Germany: Memories of a Nation exhibition.

But before our allotted time, I arrived early with a view to doing some sketching in one of the galleries.

Unfortunately, having fallen into a trap of assuming that, on the Monday morning after Christmas, it might be quieter than usual, I found myself in a crush of tour parties.

My sketching mission had been launched with two potential targets in mind: Egyptian stuff – which I have found fascinating (and always slightly scary) since childhood – and the totem poles near one of the caf├ęs in the Great Court.

The latter turned out to be facing away from the seated areas, so having nowhere to sit to sketch, I passed that opportunity over.

And the former was, as mentioned, jam packed.

Getting increasingly frustrated by being shoved aside as people snapped shots of relics, I was wondering whether to head somewhere else, when I suddenly found a bench with a view of a sketchable head, sited high up and therefore above the tourist hordes.

The red granite head of a king, from around 1390BC, is thought to be of Amenophis III (Amenhotep III), and was found at Thebes.

The resulting sketch is not particularly good: trying to work so rapidly, looking up and down from knee to way above my head, in an environment that was making me feel fractious, has made for skewed perspective.

However, it has its point of interest.

All this came as the new Hollywood blockbuster, Exodus, faces ongoing condemnation from some quarters for having a rather caucasian look about it.

“Moses film attacked on Twitter for all-white cast,” tweeted Rupert Murdoch, who owns 20th Century Fox, which is distributing the film.

“Since when are Egyptians not white? All I know are.”

It was about half way through my sketching yesterday that it dawned on me that the face represented in granite had clear African characteristics.

I checked and checked again. No, I wasn’t mistaken. Later, I looked with a new eye at other representations of ancient Egyptian faces. And while they vary, there is no doubt that many have characteristics that would mark them firmly as black.

So to conclude, two things occur to me about this:

 art encourages you to look and, through looking, to learn. Indeed, it pretty much demands it. Which struck me as particularly interesting, when you compare that with the growing trend of snapping exhibits (and selfies) on a phone in museums and galleries.

• Rupert Murdoch is an idiot. Although to be entirely fair, that’s not something that we didn’t know already.

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