The past is present becoming Egyptian in the 20th century
Room 3 of the British Museum is currently dedicated to items from modern Egypt which tell the story of the country and its engagement with its own past.
The show includes several items including milk bottles, cigarette packets and vinyl records. We still find ancient Egyptian iconography on some of these items today.
The show follows on from the Museum’s crowd sourced Collecting modern Egypt project, but contains different items (including an additional sewing machine)
The most intriguing items in the collection are probably the fashion magazine. Egypt was often portrayed as female. In the postwar period, fashion magazines portrayed fashionable Egyptian women alongside ancient Egyptian imagery.
In the west “Egyptomania” is a known trend. Blossoming in the 100 years+ period between Napoleon and Tutankhamen, the imagery and flourishes of ancient Egypt were used in Western Countries to evoke luxury, exoticism and style. Egypt also experienced a reinterest in their past at various points of the twentieth century, including during times when they reaffirmed their national autonomy or sought inspiration.
Yet there is a missed opportunity to present a more complex Egypt. The recent show at the Tate Liverpool celebrating the Art et Liberté art collective revealed a vibrant artistic movement, cosmopolitan and politically engaged, who created powerful art which drew only obliquely, if at all, from ancient Egypt.
This criticism is perhaps unfair given that the show’s raison d’être is to examine how Egypt explored its own heritage, but more could have been done to place these cultural artefacts in a wider context. Nevertheless it is an engaging show, which offers a necessary antidote to histories of reception which only focus on Western engagement.
See it now.