Refugee Week: Travelling with Hope

Refugee Week takes place every year across the world, around World Refugee Day on the 20th June. In the UK, Refugee Week is a nationwide programme of arts and events celebrating the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encouraging a better understanding between communities. In 2017, Refugee Week runs from 19th to 25th June.

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“The ultimate aim is to create better understanding between different communities and to encourage successful integration, enabling refugees to live in safety and continue making a valuable contribution.” – Refugee Week

Manchester Museum’s Ancient Worlds galleries are currently host to ‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth’, an installation by Zahed Taj-Eddin, reflecting on his experiences as an artist born in Syria. Today’s post is my own personal reflection on the artwork.

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Shabtis: Suspended Truth – A Reflection

Over the last couple of months, the Ancient Worlds galleries at Manchester Museum have been invaded by an army of little blue figures.

They fit in seamlessly, yet are somehow completely incongruous, challenging the visitor to consider the fundamental questions of what museums do, and in what way this is changing.

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‘Shabtis: Suspended Truth’ © Zahed Taj-Eddin

As soon as something is described as an ‘intervention’ or ‘disruption’, this immediately unsettles the familiar museum vocabulary of ‘exhibition’ or ‘display’. There is a sense of violence in the language, highlighting the divide between the ways that people think about museums and art galleries, and it is this difference that is used to create the avant-garde.

This intervention is clever. It doesn’t just create a counterpoint to tradition, original, authentic, ancient; a polemic that would bring judgements of right or wrong, approval or disapproval. This exhibition is clever because rather than setting up an opposition, it disrupts the Ancient Worlds galleries in a playful way, it is not one thing or another, it does not ask for approval – it is a subtle violation.

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Perhaps as a disclaimer before I go any further, I was always going to love this installation. I have had a soft spot for Shabtis since I catalogued the University of Liverpool’s collection of them as an undergraduate – for 2 months I lived, breathed and slept the Shabti Spell. I also have a soft spot for breaking the rules…

Yes, I think it’s brilliant, but perhaps mainly because you don’t need to be an Egyptologist to ‘get it’.

So, why does it work? In what ways does it make us think differently about the museum, its collections and the world around us?

Transgressing Boundaries

Shabtis: Suspended Truth disrupts both physical and symbolic borders. The objects, the ‘Nu’ Shabtis are at once contained within the cases, but then transgress this containment, overflowing from the bounded space of traditional display. They ascend, as though floating, above the Egyptian Worlds gallery. There is a definite sense of freedom, caught between the gallery spaces below and above – journeying upwards and onwards with hope, yet still suspended, tied by an almost invisible nylon thread, still not completely free.

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Especially for Early Modern Europeans, collecting became a way by which connoisseurs constructed a narrative of value and an elite community, based on both ownership and display. Objects were physically contained in cabinets, encircling, encasing, and containing their known world. Today, cases continue to be the best way to safeguard the objects on display, and are a part of a universal museum language, so as the little blue figures overflow their containment, they are quite literally challenging the traditional concept of what museums do, and what they are for.

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This blurring of boundaries also works on a symbolic level, as a political critique of the artifice of the borders between states and countries, and the geopolitical lines that have been drawn to demarcate territory, identity and possession. The ‘Nu’ Shabtis are powerful symbols for the journeys across borders made by refugees. As the figures cross the out of the case into the gallery space, the unknown, they do so with hope, but also with trepidation. The refugees are ‘suspended’ between a past from which they have fled and a future which is at best uncertain.

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‘Exodus’ (2017), Zahed Taj-Eddin. ‘Nu’ Shabtis braving a seaward journey, poignantly overlooked by two funerary busts from ancient Palmyra. 

Perhaps the most apparent border Shabtis: Suspended Truth disrupts is that between Museum and Gallery.

Museum Stories – Art and Artefact

Museums and art galleries both display things, and both reflect a modern connoisseurship of sorts. It seems, although perhaps an over simplification – with collections being made up individually reflecting personalities, space and circumstance – that the work displayed in galleries celebrates authorship (even if this be anonymous, or considered to be channelling divine creativity), as a narrative canvas for the artist. In a museum space the emphasis is on the interpretation of a combination of form and function, and the narratives imposed upon the things displayed. Museums ask, ‘what and why?’, where galleries ask, ‘who and why?’

But are art and artefact so different? Are they not rooted within the same concept of a thing being made or transformed by skill?

Shabtis are part of the vocabulary of museum collecting. And they make a fitting metaphor for journeying. Not only were these figures expected to travel to the afterlife and act as a magical substitute for the deceased when Osiris was to ask them to work in the fields, or transfer sand from East to West and vice versa, but as artefacts of excavation, and souvenirs of the new-found tourist trade of the nineteenth century, when wealthy Europeans would ‘winter in Egypt for their health’, these little brilliant blue mummiform figures had a classic Egyptian-ness about them. Shining with the precious colours of turquoise and lapis lazuli, a Shabti would fit any hand luggage, making them both transportable and collectable.

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The old juxtoposed with the ‘Nu’. Manchester Museum’s mass display of Shabtis disrupted by an addition by Zahed Taj-Eddin. 

Therefore, to choose the Shabti as the subject for this artwork is to engage with the very fabric of ancient Egyptian collecting, and quite literally the fabric of the process of production. Artist Zahed Taj-Eddin’s doctoral thesis involved archaeometric experimentation to understand the process of making faience, the bright blue glazed non-pottery ceramic which has become some familiar to the landscape of the museum Egyptology collection.

Archaeometric experimentation with faience production.

But these aren’t simply replicas or reproductions. They disrupt the real / unreal opposition, because although the simulate the manufacturing process, they are not Shabtis, but ‘Nu’ Shabtis. They are not bound to an afterlife of toil in the same way as those from ancient Egypt, they have a freedom to take their own possession, and make their own consumer choices.

Taj-Eddin’s narrative of the ‘Nu’ Shabtis is an elaborate story of freedom, with “no afterlife, no god of the underworld, no master to substitute for and no labours to perform.” But this liberation is partial, the legs remain in a mummified form.

But even without the artist’s explanation, the contrast of the Shabti with the ‘Nu’ Shabti challenges the viewer to think about death, property and expectation. The twenty first century expectation after death will rarely involve being tasked by Osiris to move vast quantities of sand, and of the roads we take, death is a journey that we can only travel with hope, and poignantly, when the refugee journeys, it is not with huge quantities of objects, just with tokens of meaning, and of course, hope.

Ancient and modern they are both embodied processes which contain within them a narrative of the maker and the ontological or ideological function of the social life in which they function.

Connecting with People

This exhibition is as much about thinking and feeling as it is about looking. The object becomes a surrogate for thinking about displaced people, about borders, belonging and freedom. It humanises the uncertainty, the ‘suspended lives’, of refugees in holding camps, and in a very material way makes the viewer consider who is subject and who is object, and the meaning placed on material things.

But this connection doesn’t stop there. This installation doesn’t stand alone, but stands within and entangled with the stories of ancient people, their things and even their bodies. It becomes a part of a timeless story of human movement.

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Very often, we look, we learn and interpret, but we do not judge. We see human sacrifices in the reigns of First Dynasty kings, Aha and Djer, and what can only be described as animal cruelty of the animal mummy ‘industry’, and we do not judge, because their society and ideologies were different. And each time we see and do not judge, this removes us a further step from these ancient people. But here, in the galleries, we see ancient and modern side by side, and the thinking of these people brings with it an emotional connection, which humanises the makers, the markers, the users, the owners of all of the objects on display,

The Twenty First Century Museum

Museums are changing. Because the world is changing, and the way that we as people have become entangled with things and connect with the world around us continues to change. The world is a very different place than it was even five years ago, never mind 55, or even 105 years ago.

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© Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst, München

Museums are filled with stories, of the past, but also of the present. So, does contemporary art belong in the twenty first century museum? One answer is that all art has been contemporary.

Ultimately, it is perhaps the violation of the traditional space that gives this intervention its power, the way that tradition can be made, unmade and remade, and the way that form itself can be remoulded within the imagination, and in a full circle (or spiral) the contemporary can layer humanity and empathy upon the people of the past.

For me, one of the most poignant messages of this intervention is that humanity is without frontiers. We all journey in hope, and a different past is not a barrier to a shared future.

Michelle Scott *

 * This is a personal reflection, and does not necessarily represent the views of the artist or the Museum.

With grateful thanks to Zahed Taj-Eddin, Leah Acheson Roberts and Campbell Price for bringing this exhibition to Manchester Museum.

Shabtis: Suspended Truth In Context – Exhibition Booklet
RefugeeWeek.org.uk

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