From Cleopatra to Carter: Norwich exhibition explores the reimagining of Pharaonic Egypt

Egypt exhibition Norwich
6 min read
15 December, 2022

Tranquil, joyful and scantly dressed, a group of Egyptian women huddle in a circle entombed by mummy-like figurines.

Edwin Long 1878
'The Gods and Their Makers,' Edwin Long (1878) [source: TNA]

Edwin Long’s artwork offers an "improbable scene" of the Pharaonic age, says its accompanying caption. The colourful piece – produced in 1878 on the eve of the first British rule over the African nation – is displayed in the Visions of Ancient Egypt exhibition hosted by the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, east England. 

Amid Anglicized imagery, the English Victorian painter does include some authentic artefacts; namely, the blue shabti dolls littered throughout the picture which were created in ancient Egypt to accompany the deceased in the afterlife. 

However, in reality, Egyptian women would not have sat around in such a scene. Their European features and pale skin; the fluffy white cat and walls adorned with hieroglyphics are figments of Long’s imagination.  

Like so many images of ancient Egypt, while elements of truth are woven in, when looking at the overall picture – what we see is a work of fiction.

Live Story

This story of how Pharaonic Egypt has been re-invented and re-imagined over time lies at the heart of the Norwich-based exhibition.

Marking a century since Tutankhamun's "rediscovery" and two centuries since the decipherment of hieroglyphs, the exhibition features an array of artefacts and paintings to show how enduring cultural conceptions of Egypt are a product of both cherry-picked truths and potent imagination.

Egyptian exhibition
The exhibition explores where our cultural fascination with Pharaonic Egypt comes from [source: TNA]

"We wanted it to be about the reception of Egypt," said curator Benjamin Hinson to The New Arab. 

The V&A Egyptologist – who worked alongside Art Historian and Curator Anna Ferrari – said that from the outset the exhibition’s aim was to look at why Pharaonic Egypt has become such an iconic historical moment in cultural imaginations and the context behind this. 

"We wanted to move the conversation forward," he added. 

"We were clear we didn’t just want another exhibition about Egypt and its legacy. This space looks at how people responded to Egypt and explores the reasons behind this enduring fascination." 

Pharaonic Egypt
Many of the paintings show a distorted view of Egypt, merging together a range of monuments and stories into one frame [source: TNA]

To start, room one explores Cleopatra – who Ben said was "the perfect case study". 

Egypt’s queen is one of the most well-remembered women in history who has been subjected to constant reinvention by ancient Romans to Hollywood producers. 

Like the Pharaonic Age, historical truths about her life and achievements have been blurred and elasticated into a narrative that immortalises her as a kind of mythical being from another world. 

The exhibition offers depictions that showcase Western re-conceptions of the Macedonian Greek as a pale-skinned erotic beauty and ones that challenge these prevailing images. 

In one image, the Ptolemaic ruler sits lounging on a boat sailing on the Nile. She is dressed as the Egyptian goddess Isis with gold plates on her hips and sports an elaborate bird-like head-dress. She softly gazes at Mark Anthony, who looks disgruntled after their defeat to Octavian in the battle of Actium, often seen as the beginning of the end for the Egyptian leader. 

Cleopatra Version One
Cleopatra has been subjected to constant re-invention across generations from ancient Rome to modern Hollywood [source: TNA]

Yet, look left, there is a very different image of Cleopatra by Chris Ofili. Here, she is a black woman with long features painted in an abstract style.

"This piece is re-imagining her in the context of Africa, seeing Egypt as part of Africa," said Ben. 

'Cleopatra' Version 2
'Cleopatra', Chris Ofili (1992). This painting 'deliberately challenges the Western myths' of the Egyptian ruler [source: TNA]

Lining the corridors of rooms 2 and 3 of the exhibition, there are stone slabs, sculptures and sketches tracing the evolution of Egyptian iconography in the eyes of the Romans, Renaissance artists, early modern Egyptophiles and up to the modern day.  

"It was the Romans," said Ben, "who were fundamental in starting to look back." 

Indeed, the image of Cleopatra as a seductive temptress was shaped by authorities in Rome, largely at the behest of revenge-fuelled Octavian. 

More broadly, the Roman empire saw the beginnings of a fascination with Egypt as a place of mysticism and divinity.  

It is striking to see how this fascination bleeds across time and space, as the exhibition shows. 

For example, chronicles from Athanasius Kircher – a Jesuit scholar considered by some as the "founder of Egyptology" – are opened to a page where you see a series of disfigured pyramids and dark tombs. The book, Sphinx Mystagoga, speaks directly to Long's painting produced a hundred years later: both, in essence, are a story of distortion rooted in wonderment for another world. 

Sphinx Mystagoga
'Sphinx Mystagoga', Athanasius Kircher (1676) [source: TNA]

These accounts are then juxtaposed with medieval Arabic manuscripts responding to the same sites and monuments in order to differentiate Europe’s "rediscovery" of ancient Egypt from Egypt’s unbroken engagement with its own past. 

There is also artwork from the much-celebrated European designers Josiah Wedgwood and Giovanni Battista, who created Pharaonic objects that relied on a vision of Egypt "mediated through ancient Rome and the classical lens". Together, they cemented enduring notions that ancient Egypt was a place of exoticism and excess. 

These imaginings then informed how travellers, creatives and designers engaged with the African country in the 19th century. Watercolours, oil paintings, and photography produced during the colonial period are an extension of this Pharaonic obsession and lay the groundwork for the books, fashion and films produced in the 20th century. 

"This tells us as much about the Egyptians as it does about the people who reused ancient Egypt. It is part of a grand history," said Ben. 

Ancient Egypt
'Egyptianising' objects became commonplace in the 1700s [source: TNA]

When it comes to Howard Carter (roughly in room 4) and colonial influences on the imaginations of pharaonic Egypt, the exhibition takes a clear line. 

It was important to "appreciate" how colonialism has both shaped and been shaped by a fascination with Egypt, said Ben. 

"We didn’t want to be polemic. But we needed to be honest and upfront," he said. 

Telling the story of the "rediscovery" of King Tutankhamun, the boy king, there are a series of photographs of Carter and the treasures discovered in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. The British archaeologist is often remembered as an acclaimed Egyptologist who oversaw the excavation of thousands of priceless artefacts. These objects sparked a frenzied interest in pharaonic Egypt in the 1920s which was enshrined in the clothing, architecture and literature of the decade. 

In the images at the exhibition, there are also numerous nameless Egyptians who helped with the evacuation efforts. The Sainsbury Centre makes reference to their contribution as well as acknowledging the controversial monopoly that The Times newspaper had on the discovery, meaning Egyptians could only follow the story via the British press. 

"Some people have found this refreshing, others are uncomfortable. We wanted to speak to the Egyptian side of the story and how that story was told," said Ben.

Exhibition Carter
Carter's meticulous assessing and cataloguing of the thousands of objects in the tomb took nearly ten years [source: TNA]

Indeed, the final room is dedicated to just that: giving agency to Egyptian artists and contemporary re-inventions of ancient Egypt. 

Artwork from Francis Bacon and David Hockey appear alongside pieces from Artists Hamed Nada and Khaled Hafez. 

The pieces are colourful, curious, and in each case a unique revision of this rich cultural legacy of imagining Pharaonic Egypt as this other, ethereal world.  

"One of my favourite pieces in ‘Adam and Eve’ by Mahmoud Said," said Ben. 

Painted in 1937, the figures presented a tender and striking. They offer a very different vision of Egypt compared to Long's 1878 painting. 

The lovers look intimate and connected with African and Arab features. They are standing in paradise setting based on Egyptian desert along the Nile

Adam and Eve picture
Mahmoud Said was a pioneer of Egyptian modern art [source: TNA]

"It was awe-inspiring to see the painting in the exhibition," said Ben.  

"It recasts the Biblical story as Egyptian and is also an example of this constant re-framing of Egypt." 

The exhibition will run until January 2023 at the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia campus