Thursday, February 5, 2015

Raiders of the lost art

Nebamun Hunting Fowl, British Museum exhibition
Enter the British Museum's new Egyptian gallery and you will be struck by a line of painted panels of unexpectedly rich colouring and extravagant composition. On one panel, a pair of naked female dancers, their fingers interlaced, glide sinuously before a crowd at a banquet. Beside them, a flute player stares out from the painting, her hair shimmering as if she is swaying to the music. Each figure is distinct, individual and freely drawn, their proportions and detail captured perfectly.
Wander further along the main wall and you will find other exuberant depictions of everyday life in 18th Dynasty Egypt: a boy driving cattle along a road; geese, stored in baskets, ready for the market; a farmer, stooped and balding, checking his fields, and a hunt through reed beds that burst with creatures - shrike, wagtails and pintail ducks - easily identifiable still.
These are the tomb paintings that once belonged to Nebamun, a court official who lived almost 3,500 years ago, and they are the greatest surviving paintings we have from ancient Egypt. Each was created for Nebamun by a painter as gifted as any of the Renaissance's finest artists, and they will be revealed to the public this month when the British Museum opens a special gallery dedicated to them, a 10-year project that has cost £1.5m to complete. It will be a striking addition to the museum.
Yet for all the effort that has gone into the gallery's construction and the studies of its paintings, mystery still shrouds the Nebamun panels. For a start, archaeologists have no idea about the identity of the artist who created them and are equally puzzled why a painter of such talent was involved with a relatively minor clerk like Nebamun.
Nor do historians have any record of the original tomb's location. The man who discovered them was a Greek grave robber called Giovanni d'Athanasi, who dug them up in Thebes, as Luxor was then known, and then passed them on, via a collector, to the British Museum. However, in 1835 D'Athanasi fell out with curators over his finder's fee and refused to divulge the precise position of the tomb. He took his secret to the grave, dying a pauper in 1854 in Howland Street, a few minutes' walk from the museum. Ever since, archaeologists have searched in vain for the tomb of Nebamun and any treasures that it may still contain.
The Nebamun paintings have - to say the least - a colourful history, and the task of unravelling it, and for caring for these remarkable works, has been handled by Egyptologist Richard Parkinson. Dapper, bow-tied and possessed of an infectious enthusiasm for his subject, Parkinson showed me the panels last November, when they were cased in wood and glass, ready for removal to their new gallery. They were stacked in a museum basement store which held other Egyptian artefacts, including a series of panels dedicated to a chief treasurer, Sobekhotep. Think of him as the 18th Dynasty's answer to Alistair Darling, a politician who controlled the nation's wealth and economic destiny. Yet the panels commemorating him are thin, lifeless and provide little feeling for the man's life or times, or any sense of artistic sensitivity.
By contrast, the artwork that celebrates Nebamun's life bursts with energy. In one panel, he stands on a papyrus skiff at the head of a hunting trip into reed-covered marshes filled with tilapia and puffer fish, Egyptian red geese, tiger butterflies, black and white wagtails and an exquisitely painted tawny cat that is helping itself to the birds being brought down by Nebamun. The cat is a product of particularly grand draughtsmanship, in which stripes and dots have been delicately assembled to produce a magnificently whiskered tabby. Scales on fish, feathers on ducks and soft folds in the clothes of the Nebamun retinue have also been created this way. It is an extraordinary evocation of Egyptian life, its vitality undimmed 3,500 years later. As for Nebamun, in the hunting panel he towers over proceedings, his wife Hatshepsut beside him and their daughter at his feet. Wearing a black wig and a great collar of beads, he strikes a pose that is assured and proud, almost regal.
Yet Nebamun was really just a bean counter - or to be precise, a grain counter whose job was to make sure the wheat stores in the temple of Amun were properly controlled. So how did this middle-grade civil servant acquire the services of one of the greatest painters of ancient Egypt while his superiors had to make do with second-rate artists?
"These are the greatest paintings we have from ancient Egypt," Parkinson says. "There is nothing to touch them in any museum in the world. Yet they were created for an official too lowly to have been known by the pharaoh. It is quite extraordinary." Parkinson does, however, have an intriguing explanation. The "Michelangelo of the Nile" who created these great tomb panels was almost certainly working on another project in the neighbourhood of Nebamun's tomb at the time. This building or burial complex would have been constructed, and decorated, on a far grander style for a far more important figure. Nebamun merely slipped the artist and his team some extra cash and they stole off to paint his own panels. In short, the secret of his tomb and its great painting lies with one word: backhanders. "Life then was not that different from today," says Parkinson.
Ironically, the artist's main project was no doubt a finer work, but it has disappeared, looted and trashed like the vast majority of ancient Egypt's great treasures. The Nebamun panels are the only record we have of this genius. We have therefore good reason to be grateful to Nebamun, one of life's perennial opportunists, but an astute collector of fine art just the same.
As to their purpose, the paintings were intended to make Nebamun appear important in the afterlife. They would have covered the tomb's upper level, while his body was interred in a chamber below ground. Friends and family would have visited the upper part of the tomb, left gifts and held feasts to commemorate Nebamun's life. "This was where life and death merged," says Parkinson. Thus the paintings were not buried and hidden away but established a link between the living and the dead. Hence their importance to Nebamun's family. They were to be appreciated, leisurely, after the man's death as reminders of his achievements.
They were certainly not created at a leisurely rate, however, as Parkinson has found in his investigations of the paintings. Once the tomb's stone walls had been erected, they were covered in straw and Nile mud mixed together into a squishy paste. Then, when this was dry, a thin layer of white plaster was added. As that started to dry, the artist and his team began to paint, using soot from cooking pots, desert stones for red, yellow and white pigments, and ground glass for blue and green. Rushes, chewed at the end, would have acted as brushes. Squashed into the dark, narrow upper tomb, the painters would have had to work by lamplight before the plaster dried. The results are almost impressionistic in the freedom of their execution.
"I think Nebamun had all his paintings done for his tomb-chapel walls in three months," says Parkinson. "Yet the draughtsmanship was quite wonderful. The thing is that although the artist and his team may have done them in a few weeks, I have now spent a quarter of my life studying their handiwork."
The panels' importance to modern eyes is clear. They tell us a great deal about ancient Egypt and its everyday activities, and about differences and similarities between life then and now. "The straw crates in which geese are sold at market - you see these on just about every street corner in Cairo," says Parkinson. "And the women's jet-black hair and skin colour are just the same as we see in Egypt today."
However, Parkinson warns about drawing too many parallels between modern life and the scenes depicted in the panels. Objects and animals are often included because they had great symbolic importance. That great hunt scene is more than a depiction of everyday life: the birds and cat are symbols of fertility and female sexuality, and Nebamun's expedition can also be seen as "taking possession of the cycle of creations and rebirth", as one scholar has put it. Certainly, visitors should take care when trying to interpret the panels' meaning.
Nevertheless, the paintings repay detailed inspection. On several of them, you can see where d'Athanasi's grave robbers had started to crowbar a panel from a wall only to find it cracking, ready to split. They would then move on to splinter open the panel at a new spot. "Only 20 per cent of the panels survived these attacks," adds Parkinson. "Only sections that would appeal to British audiences were taken: the ones with naked dancing girls and scenes from gardens. Perfect for our taste, in short."
One or two other fragments did end up in other museums, including several that are now kept in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Evidence also suggests that a handful of fragments may survive elsewhere. For example, records from the Cairo Museum show that, just after the second world war, a few sections from the tomb were about to be exported from Egypt, a move that was opposed by its government - so officials had the panel pieces photographed and stored in the great vaults below the Cairo Museum. And that is where they rest today, though their precise location has been lost. All that is known is that among the tens of thousands of other ancient treasures kept in the museum's store, the missing Nebamun panels are today gathering dust in a dark, lost corner. It is a strange fate and it invites - irresistibly - a comparison with the fictional resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, dumped in a mammoth warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In short, a fantastic end for some fantastic art.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Tripping over ancient obstacles

Sweltering in black nylon, Caroline Hendrie endures the religiously enforced restrictions on women to visit the heartland of Islam
Woman in Saudi Arabia
A woman dressed in the all-enveloping black abaya contemplates a painting in a Saudi Arabian hotel.
Never has 'my trip' been a more apt description of a holiday. Half of us in Explore Worldwide's first group to tour Saudi Arabia spent two weeks tripping - up ramparts, onto coaches, into tombs and over disused railway tracks.
The deeply traditional kingdom has tentatively opened to tourists, but in a very controlled and restricted way. So, no independent travellers; no tourist visas for women under 40, unless accompanied by their husband, father or brother; a list of subjects that must not be photographed, including all women; no alcohol, of course, and a compulsory dress code. While male visitors must remember only not to pack their shorts, women can't get away with just loose and modest clothing. So on our first morning in Riyadh we were whisked to the nearest shopping mall to be kitted out in black abayas.
Sajjad, our Pakistani guide, held up larger and larger tent-like garments, explaining that men must not be able to discern the outline of our bodies: for their protection and ours, it is the law. But as foreigners we need only wear a headscarf, not the burqa, the full head covering and veil with only a slit for the eyes that is compulsory for Saudi women outside their homes. For 100 riyals (£20) I bought a wide, all-enveloping wrap-over with poppers at the neck and tasselled cord ties on one side. I also bought a short burqa for £4, which turned out quite useful - dispensing with the need for sun block, less sweaty round the neck than a scarf, and staying firmly in place.
We left the air-conditioned shopping mall and drove to the outskirts of Riyadh, to Direyah, the remains of the mud-brick capital of the first Saudi state founded in 1466. But dizzy with the scorching sun beating down on my black-nylon-covered head and constantly stepping on the hem of my abaya trying to keep up on the rough paths, I am afraid the sophisticated level of architecture and Sajjad's talk about its history passed me by.
The reason we were out in the midday sun on our first day in Saudi Arabia was that the nice cool National Museum where we were going to have our orientation is 'men and school parties only' on Monday mornings, and we had to wait until late afternoon for 'family' time to begin. And so it was that our odd 'family' (it was by being classified as a family that our motley group of seven tourists - two couples, a single man and two single women - were allowed to travel and eat together) embarked on a sightseeing tour where we turned out to be the curiosities in many places we visited.
Saudi Arabian society is so strictly segregated that men and women are forbidden to work together, shake hands, converse or even catch one another's eyes. Women cannot eat in public, travel on buses or drive. The all-powerful matawwa - religious police, recognisable by their fearsome long beards and above-the-ankle hemlines - enforce the law.
That first night in Riyadh I had another taste of the challenges to come. Walking blithely through the door of a recommended restaurant I and my two companions were greeted by a waiter rushing forward to shoo us round to the 'family' entrance down a side alley. In a gloomy windowless room we were shown to a screened-off table where we ate our meal in purdah. Another thing everyone needs to remember when looking for something to eat in Saudi Arabia is that restaurants (and shops) shut for a good half-hour for prayer time around midday, sunset, and again when darkness has completely fallen.
The next morning we flew north to Al Jawf, near the Jordanian border. Due to its position on a major trade route with what are now Iraq and Syria, the area is rich in archaeological sites. As we stumbled up the crumbly steps of Marid palace in the ruined pre-Islamic settlement of Dumat al Jandal, Frances, a retired teacher from Yorkshire, catching her foot in her hem yet again, mused, 'How do the women here manage?'
'They don't go sightseeing. They don't go anywhere,' I said through gritted teeth.
Certainly Saudi women don't take part much in active outdoor life (bearing on average 6.4 children can't help), and so far we'd had every site to ourselves - the mysterious fourth-century standing stones of Sakaka in a lonely field were all ours, as was Qasr Zaabel, a fort perched high on a rock.
At our hotel that night the presence of round-the-clock sentries in the lobby (to guard the prince of the region, who had taken over the second floor while his new palace is being built) rather inhibited me from leaving my abaya in my room. Generally, though, we were told, it is all right not to wear it inside hotels, where 99 per cent of the staff are foreign workers anyway.
We stayed in the best hotels wherever we went, on the insistence of the ministry of tourism, and all were proud of their leisure facilities. In the Hyatt Regency in Riyadh, my welcome letter invited me to use the gym and pool, but when I asked the receptionist about the opening times he regretted that ladies were not allowed, though with a day or so's notice they could drive me out to an expat compound for a swim. (At the Holiday Inn down south in Najran the Palestinian manager offered to close the steam room and Jacuzzi for an hour so the women in our group could use them, but not the pool, alas, because it is open-air, and can be overlooked.)
From Sakaka we embarked on a three-night camping trip by four-wheel drive, more or less following the route of the Hejaz railway, built nearly 100 years ago to bring pilgrims from Damascus to Medina, and raided by Lawrence of Arabia with Bedouin armies during the First World War.
It was a long drive into Wadi Madakhil for our last night's camping, so after seeing Bir Haddaj, the beautifully restored old well and ancient mud-brick Qasr al Hakuma in Tayma, we sped out of town. But not far.
At the first checkpoint we were made to wait, 'only 15 minutes' - which turned into an hour - for the local prince who was due down the road from the other direction. No vehicle could pass until the prince had come through. By the time his convoy arrived I was quite excited, would he be in a bullet-proof Cadillac or a silver Bentley? He finally swept by in a huge bronze and smoked-glass coach worthy of a country and western star on tour.
We pitched our tents in the fading light beside Elephant Rock, which, being a local attraction, was strewn with broken glass and cans. My abaya came in handy to cover my modesty for a quick wash behind my tent in the light of the full moon.
In remoter areas the atmosphere was more relaxed and we were able to eat in small restaurants in full view of local males, though there weren't any women's loos. The police were more interested in our documents than what we were wearing, and Sajjad got less strict about headscarf drill. So I was able to stride untrammelled round the huge Nabatean site of Madain Saleh, sensibly dressed in a sun hat, shirt and trousers, passport safely zipped in a pocket.
The nearest we got to the holy city of Medina - which, with Mecca, is strictly off-limits for non-Muslims - was the airport, where I saw pilgrims wearing just two pieces of white cloth, and holy water, one of the few home-produced souvenirs, on sale at £4 for 10 litres.
We flew to Jeddah, the cosmopolitan city port on the Red Sea, where plate-glass skyscrapers tower over the crooked narrow streets of the old town. I wandered in search of supper down a busy boulevard teeming with people from all over the Muslim world. There was no shortage of fast-food restaurants, but all the seating was 'bachelors only'. I had to buy my halal fried chicken through the 'ladies window' and scuttle back to my room with it.
The next day we visited Naseef House, an old merchant's home, now a museum. Sami Nawar, director of the Jeddah Historical Preservation Society, who showed us round, said that the ministry of tourism was interested in attracting more visitors, but rather than relaxing the rules was considering closing off certain areas to locals lest they be influenced by contact with the tourists.
It's this insular attitude that adds to the fascination for a tourist to a country untouched by 'Starbucksisation'. The overt discrimination I experienced because of my sex felt extraordinary. So while it may be an odd way to spend a holiday - in an outfit unsuitable for sightseeing or the climate, barred from restaurants and buses, not allowed a beer or a swim - it was extremely interesting, and often amusing.
I got strangely attached to my hot, flapping abaya, which had its advantages, like protecting my vanity from the crumpled consequences of two weeks without an iron. And while it hampered my movements, it also freed me to wander around on my own unhassled by hawkers or gawpers. My own, travelling, invisibility cloak.
Caroline Hendrie travelled with Explore Worldwide (01252 760000). Its 'Journey through Arabia' plus Asir Mountains extension costs £2,315, including flights, all transport, an accompanying tour leader, 13 nights' accommodation and most meals. A 10-day tour, without the Asir Mountains, costs from £1,765. The next tour departs on 13 October and there are trips scheduled for 27 October, 22 December, 16/30 March and 13 April. Explore can arrange a Saudi Arabian visa, which costs £39 plus a £20 agency fee.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ancient Chinese clothing

ming dynasty chinese women
Ming dynasty (1400s AD)
painting by Tang Yin
People in China generally wore tunics (like long t-shirts). Women wore long tunics down to the ground, with belts, and men wore shorter ones down to their knees. Sometimes they wore jackets over their tunics. In the winter, when it was cold, people wore padded jackets over their tunics, and sometimes pants under them. In early China, poor people made their clothes of hemp or ramie. Rich people wore silk.
Most people in China, both men and women, wore their hair long. People said that you got your hair from your parents and so it was disrespectful to cut it.
During the Sui Dynasty, in the 500s AD, the emperor decided that all poor people had to wear blue or black clothes, and only rich people could wear colors.
footbinding xrays
X-ray pictures of someone with bound feet and a diagram
In the Sung Dynasty, about 1100 AD, a fashion started at the emperor's court for women to bind their feet. Women thought that to be beautiful they needed little tiny feet, only about three inches long. They got these tiny feet by wrapping tight bandages around the feet of little girls, about five or six years old.
golden lotus shoe
A shoe for someone with bound feet
The bandages were so tight they broke the girls’ toes and bent them underneath their feet and then they had to walk on them like that. The girls spent most of their time crying for two or three years and then the feet stopped hurting so much. Women with bound feet couldn’t walk very well at all, and when they had to work in the fields often they would crawl. Some of the earliest versions of the story of Cinderella come from Sung Dynasty China. In these versions, the point of the story is that the Prince loves Cinderella because she has the smallest feet of any girl in the kingdom, so the slipper will only fit her.
Then in the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongols brought cotton to China. At first people didn’t want to grow cotton, maybe because the people running the silk industry wanted to keep people buying silk. But the Mongol invasions in the 1200’s destroyed a lot of the mulberry trees that were needed to make silk. The Mongol emperors, like Kublai Khan, turned to cotton to fill the gap. In 1289 AD they ordered the opening of special training centers to teach farmers how to grow cotton. And in 1296 they ordered that farmers who grew cotton could pay lower taxes. Soon everyone liked cotton better than ramie or hemp. Cotton was warmer, and softer, and stronger, and cheaper. You could make it thin for summer, or you could make thick padded clothes out of it that were warm for winter.

To find out more about ancient Chinese clothing, check out these books from Amazon or from your library:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Shop The Egyptian Styles Of Katy Perry's Music Video 'Dark Horse:' Fashion Fame

Katy Perry
(Photo : Dark Horse)
Katy Perry is known for her over-the-top music videos. Who could forget her Candy Land themed "California Girls" or jungle set "Roar" videos? For her single "Dark Horse," the pop-star once again didn't fail to bring her visual and fashion A-game.

The video, which features rapper Juicy J, has a whimsical Egyptian theme with Katy as a Nefertiti meets Cleopatra type goddess. Although at first glance, it may seem like an odd connection between song and concept, the clip's director says there's good reason for the Egyptian references.
"[Katy] said that there's actually a place in Egypt called Memphis, and she thought it was so interesting that Juicy J is from Memphis, Tenn.," explains director Mathew Cullen to Times Magazine. "She basically came to me and said, 'I want to do something Egyptian and I want to combine it with Memphis hip-hop.' That's music to my ears - when an artist has a couple concepts that they want to mash up to create something fresh."
But even with this historical backdrop, Katy manages to interject her own style. Surrounded by men painted blue, the 28-year-old is seen in bright colorful ensembles (who knew neon pink and grills were so big in the pyramid days), elaborate headpieces, heavy gold accessories, glittery wings and traditional Egyptian turquoise eye make-up. The eye of rah, pharaohs, snakes, cats and other classic Egyptian symbols pop up all over the video as well.

Inspired by her ancient tribute, we are exploring modernized Egyptian styles in stores now. Watch the video below and then shop the slideshow above to get the look.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

How Beautiful Is Chinese Cheongsam

The cheongsam is a classic Chinese dress that has a long historical past given that its inception. Cheongsam as they are identified these days suggests 'long dress', but they were initially acknowledged as qipao. They initial appeared in the 17th century China during the Qing Dynasty in its fundamental kind. It was essentially a 1-piece suit dress that covered the wearer from neck to foot and had been lengthy-sleeved. There had been some variants that consisted of a two-piece dress set, a pair of trousers with long overdress.

More than the years the qipao dress had evolved from a single lengthy broad fitting dress to its body hugging fit currently. In its original form, the qipao was far more of a functional piece of clothes and did secure the modesty of the wearer. Dependent on the social class of the personal, they were normally decorated with attractive embroidery. This form of Chinese dress is common of 17th Century and 18th Century China.

Over the years, as the qipao evolved, it grew to become extra stylized and in the 1920s it was modernized to turn into extra fitted to the wearer. With the far more flattering and sexier seem, the qipao was increasingly worn by high-class courtesans and celebrities, this popularized this fashion of oriental dress. As the fashion of the dress evolved, it commenced to come to be identified far more as cheongsam.

Throughout the Communist Revolution numerous of the well known styles of qipao or cheongsam had been banned. Even so, several of the Shanghai's emigrants and refugees from the Revolution brought the trend with them to Hong Kong. Right here, the cheongsam was embraced and became more well-known and has inevitably evolved into the modern-day entire body fitting kind that you see nowadays.

The cheongsam Chinese dresses are incredibly significantly connected with the far east and oriental neighborhood. There are numerous styles obtainable but essentially they are one piece extended dresses that are usually brief-sleeved or sleeveless. One more characteristic of the cheongsam Chinese dress is that they typically function a side-silt along the leg. The length of this varies depending upon type of dress.

Cheongsam are not normally worn today all through day-to-day wear as they can look a bit took 'sexy' and dressed up. Some corporations and corporations do make use of them in their workforce. This would include Chinese restaurants, some casinos, and some airlines have variations of the cheongsam.

The modern cheongsam is a piece of Chinese clothing that is deemed rather attractive and exceptionally feminine. As this kind of they are ideally worn at particular social functions where the lady desires to stand out from the crowd and wear one thing a small distinctive. There are so numerous styles currently that some could be worn day to day but more frequently than not, these Chinese dresses are saved for pretty unique occasions. Most cheongsam dresses are bought on the net from World wide web merchants and are generally created in China but shipped throughout the world. A cheongsam Chinese dress created anywhere but China just wouldn't be the same!