An Intimate Interview with Iconographer & Poet
I was at the British Museum not long ago with a friend, and, admiring Egyptian Art, he pointed out, as many do, a certain 'lack of realism', yet we both agreed that they could paint realistically; very often, there are incredibly realistic details in Egyptian Art, thus, their choice to look at the world from a symbolic vantage point must have been conscious. You have been using symbolism in both your icons and your poems, so, no one better to give us an insight than you... What do you think we gain by looking at the world in a symbolic way?
Speaking of the British Museum, they happen to have in their Egyptian collection, as I'm sure you saw, wall-paintings from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, which were painted during the 18th Dynasty, one of the high points of Egyptian art. There is one painting in particular that is exceptionally fine, that I think illustrates what you are saying very well. In this painting, Nebamun is shown hunting wild fowl in the marshes in his papyrus skiff, accompanied by his wife and son. But it is the flora and fauna of this painting that give it its real charm and character, but also demonstrate the sophisticated degree of realism that Egyptian draughtsmen and painters could achieve.
There are different species of waterfowl present in the composition, and each is portrayed in what I feel is a very naturalistic style, with feather markings and colouration true to nature. Each bird seems very animated, behaving in a way you'd recognize in the natural world. There is this great clump of papyrus reeds supporting the community of birds, and the painters have added nests of eggs and even butterflies darting here and there...very delicate lines on the butterflies. There is also this fabulous orange and striped tomcat with very convincing whiskers, the fur marked out in such a way that really convinces the eye that this is modeled on a live cat! He's even biting into the splayed wings of a duck while his front and back paws claw into other birds he's captured. It's all highly realistic and energetic, not stiff or formal at all.
|Wall painting from the tomb chapel of Nebamun, circa 1350 BCE|
So yes, I would agree with you that the Egyptians could, and did paint realistically, and that they made a conscious choice to depict subjects in a two-dimensional style that we today look upon as lacking realism. But then, we would have to examine the differences between the view and function of ancient Egyptian art and our own. We can't assume that the Egyptians had tastes and values matching our own, because they didn't...not at all.
The Western view of art, since the time of the Italian Renaissance, is that two-dimensional painting in particular should mirror the world we see as true to life as possible, thus the obsession with mathematically correct perspective. This invention affected every aspect of the arts when it was introduced, and that very much included religious compositions and iconography. Mathematically correct perspective was a tool for creating religious compositions that actually looked real, completely true to life, regardless of the miracle or Biblical event being portrayed. Perspective was a way artists could convince the eye of the viewer that a two-dimensional space, on a flat panel or wall, was in fact a three-dimensional space filled with real people and real objects. The great exercise in painting during the Italian Renaissance, the quite revolutionary thing that happened, was a gradual and complete break from the flat, two-dimensional style of painting, which really characterizes compositions prior to the introduction of mathematically correct perspective.
Ever since that time, the craft of painting, the entire culture and understanding of art, has been founded on the rock solid notion that paintings need to reproduce nature as it is...that things need to be depicted as the eye sees them. Of course, that is until Picasso, the Cubists and Expressionists rebelled against these notions and decided to paint things as the mind saw them, as the emotional state processed them, not according to the rules of perspective.
The ancient Egyptians didn't have a word for art. They didn't have anything close to the concept of art that we have today. We think of art...as in modern art...as something that expresses the personality and personal experiences of the artist. A painter presents us with their individual reality, their own understanding or investigation into the things they see or feel. Looking at modern paintings, we can very often get a sense of who the artist is, how they are seeing their world, which is our world too. Modern art holds up a mirror in front of us, allowing us to see ourselves from the artist's point of view. There is so much of the artist in modern art. We know a Dali when we see one...a Picasso, a Koons, a Warhol. These artists conveyed so much of their personality through their styles that their works are inseparable from their character. It is almost as if the artist was as significant as the art work!
In the case of ancient Egypt we are walking on unfamiliar territory. Except in a very few rare cases, we do not know the names of individual artists or the specific works they created. Egyptian artisans...as documented in tomb scenes that give us a window into important industries...worked in something akin to guilds, in workshops that show us a collaborative effort. Individual skills were pooled in order to produce sculpture, jewellery, funerary objects, temple furniture and the like. Egyptian craftsmen were bringing their skills together as joint specialists of particular crafts, not working in isolation.
But there is a much more significant difference between ancient Egyptian art and our modern art. Egyptians weren't producing art as mere decoration, nor were they creating art as an expression of individual artists and how they experienced their life or world. There was no separation of "church" and state in ancient Egypt...no dividing line between religious experience and daily life. Every aspect of Egyptian culture was woven into the fabric of religious experience, and that very much included what we today call art.
Egyptian art was governed by a fairly strict set of rules that standardized the depiction of people and objects. These standards reflected not how the Egyptians actually saw the world with their eyes, but how they felt the world needed to be seen...through the eyes of their religion, through the eyes of magic. The Egyptians took images very seriously, as actual embodiments of the force or power acting inside the things represented. Temple scenes, tomb scenes, statues and hieroglyphs; these were living things to the Egyptians, not merely inanimate decorations. In the Egyptian cosmological view, representations of any kind carry the seeds of creation in them, the vital power of the Gods that can be equally dangerous or creative. There are multiple examples of the ritual disarming of certain images in order to counter any threat they may contain; hieroglyphs of vipers or serpent-demons are slashed or depicted with sharps knives piercing them. Statues could be defaced, could have important features mutilated or hacked off in order to disarm their magical presence. This idea of a magical force being resident in images underpins the ancient Egyptian experience of religion, which was the cement that held their civilization together, that gave it cohesion for more than three-thousand years.
When we look at ancient Egyptian images today, through our modern eyes that are influenced by how modern art tells us we should be seeing our world, there is this clash with reality that jumps out at us. People are shown in profile, for example, with the head in full profile, making the lines of nose, jaw and lips easily recognizable. But the eye is not shown in profile; it's shown as a full frontal view, planted on the side of the head with the eyebrow. We do not see the shoulders in profile, but rather as fully frontal, which is then combined with a profile view of the chest, with single breast or pectoral represented in profile. The arch of the back and musculature of buttocks and legs are also seen in profile views. Feet too are seen in profile, sometimes with all five toes visible. When first seen, such images can read very strangely from our modern artistic sensibilities.
"Reshpu Lord of Might"/ Acrylic and 22 karat gold by master iconographer Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
First and foremost, we have to come back to religion...to magic...to this sense that images have a spiritual or supernatural function, if you will. Egyptian two-dimensional representations of people or deities, like those we see in temples or tombs, had a function on a magical level, not a responsibility to the visual or aesthetic. Think about it for a moment. Look at the incredible industry that went into cutting and decorating the monumental royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings; tombs like those of Horemheb and Seti I. These are amazing feats of engineering and artistry. In the 18th Dynasty tomb of King Horemheb, we find meter after meter of delicate bas-reliefs, raised ever so slightly from a background that had been cut away. But aside from the stonemasons and artisans, and then the priests and funeral cortege, who was ever going to see these masterpieces? Only the king and the gods in the Afterlife. These were magical images, crafted to live in a magical reality not dependent on being seen by mortal eyes.
We just can't conceive of this today...conceive of any artist creating something so beautiful, so meaningful, and then locking it away forever in the darkness, with the intention that it will never be seen by human eyes again. But the ancient Egyptians did this as a significant part of their religious expression, because images were part of a spiritual technology by which resurrection and immortality were achieved. For the Egyptians, sacred images, those of the temple or tomb, had a magical life of their own. They were living and breathing components of a sacred language, a dialogue between the realm of the gods and the material world we inhabit. So, their purpose was not to look beautiful, to decorate, to express the feelings of this artist or that artist, but to achieve the aims of the magic of immortality.
The Egyptians lived through a world view in which symbols weren't just things that stood for ideas, but were, in fact, energetic embodiments of the very things they represented. We see the stars and stripes of the American flag, say, but we don't actually see the flag as being America. It is a reminder. It tells a story. It represents ideals and beliefs and the values of the American way of life. But we know that America is not a flag. The flag stands for the idea of America. But the ancient Egyptians did not see symbols in this way. For them, the image of a thing could, through a process of magic, become the thing so represented. The wax model of a national enemy, for example, could become the embodiment of your enemy's power or abilities, and to cut it up, to destroy it, was to actually and physically render your enemy impotent. So, the Egyptian experience of symbols or images was on quite a literal level, instead of on the subconscious, imaginary or figurative level.
I'm not sure that it's possible or relevant for most people in the modern world to experience symbols from the ancient Egyptian vantage. I do, because I am a Kemetic, a practitioner of the ancient Egyptian religion, and for me it comes very naturally to see my world and my gods through the lens of Egyptian symbols. I'm an iconographer working primarily within the Kemetic tradition of cult images, so I too see the symbols and images I create as the living embodiments of active divine principles. I don't see symbols...hieroglyphs, gods...as being static or inanimate. To me they are alive, dynamic, possessing a life, a power of their own, aside from also being objects of worship and devotion.
Stela of Ptah Who Hears Prayers/ Polymer clay, marble, 22 karat gold, Sterling silver, lapis, Austrian crystal by master iconographer Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
The colour blue... If I think at both Christian icons and Egyptian Art, and compare them to yours, your use of blue is far more extensive than in both. I don't think it's just because lapis lazuli is cheaper, so why do you use so much blue?
(Laughs) Hmmm...I'm not sure where you heard lapis lazuli is cheaper, because it's actually a very expensive pigment to produce, due to the extensive extraction and preparation process, and it's one of the most expensive pigments I purchase for my work. That's precisely why I use so much of it in my icons, because of its preciousness, because of the sacrifices involved in its preparation and purchase.
"Pazuzu the Divine Exorcist"/ Extra fine watercolor, 22 karat gold, lapis-lazuli, amethyst by master iconographer Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa
Lapis lazuli was one of the most valued stones used by the ancient Egyptians for jewellery and inlays, but strangely enough, they appear not to have used it as a pigment in wall painting. The most common form of blue is what's known today as Egyptian blue or frit, a synthetic composition of calcium oxide, copper carbonate, and alkali. But the use of this form of blue was still used in painted compositions to indicate the much more precious lapis lazuli, say, on the blue beaded patterns of ornamental necklaces or on cuff bracelets and jewellery that would naturally have been inlaid with lapis lazuli. In painting something to look like lapis, it would magically become lapis, in the language of magical symbolism always in play within Egyptian art work.
Blue for the Egyptians always embodied the divine, the gods and the celestial, and the primeval flood from which all things came into being. Of course, it was used extensively to indicate the sky or something whose origins were celestial, but also as a statement of divinity. Images of deities painted blue...blue faces and hands or with bodies entirely blue, were used as representations of the celestial, the primeval origin of the gods. For example, the God Amun was often depicted with blue skin to indicate His presence as the hidden and aerial qualities in creation, and also because He was one of the primeval creator gods who existed in the flood or abyss of the beginning.
The God Ra was said to have skin of gold and hair of lapis lazuli, and these solar connotations were always omnipresent in the Egyptian use of lapis lazuli, and especially in the combined use of gold and lapis. The solid gold mask of Tutankhamun is a famous example of this. The nemes headdress has stripes composed of blue glass in imitation of lapis lazuli, representing the hair of the Sun-God, but the cosmetic markings around the eyes, and the eyebrows, are real lapis lazuli. The use of these precious materials was, once again, part of a spiritual technology, a magical process by which the dead king would become the newly born and indestructible Sun-God.
You're quite right, my use of blue, of lapis lazuli in particular, is extensive. But I'm striving to accomplish the same type of sacred construction the Egyptians engaged in as a way of attracting the power of the Gods. That kind of power was always seen by the Egyptians in the use of special colours, colours that were believed to be close to the Gods. It so goes, then, that if you want to create an object to attract the Gods, to attract their power or blessing, one must use the very materials the Gods are attracted to. Any ceremonial, ritual object produced by the ancient Egyptians would have made use of gold, lapis lazuli and other semi-precious stones as a way to not only honour the sacredness of the Gods, but also to attract the Gods, to draw them forth into our world. So, my extensive use of lapis lazuli serves all of these ideals. It honours the Gods through the use of a precious natural substance that is very close to them. It attracts the spiritual power of the Gods, their magic and blessing. But it also serves symbolic purposes on top of those.
In 'Sekhmet the Eye of Ra' I used a large quantity of lapis...oh, I'd say probably the most lapis I've used in any icon to date...because the Goddess Sekhmet is the daughter of the Sun-God, Ra, and all solar images, images that reference Ra or draw on His mythos, inevitably include lapis lazuli, the sacred stone associated most with the Sun-God. As the Eye of Ra, the visible and terrible power of Ra, Sekhmet too is associated with gold and lapis lazuli. The tips of the feathers in Sekhmet's wings are all lapis...the falcon feathers in Her corset and kilt are lapis, together with the sporran and belt. All the jewellery has lapis in it, and of course the Wedjat Eye in the flaming sun on top of Her head. There's lapis all over the place in that icon! The border framing the inner panel of the Goddess is composed entirely of lapis lazuli, with some real amethyst mixed in to arrive at the darker shades.
"Sekhmet the Eye of Ra"/ An original Kemetic icon by master iconographer Ptahmassu Nofra-Uaa/ Extra fine watercolor, 22 karat gold, lapis-lazuli, Austrian crystal