History, including the history of art and religion, tends to be told by the victors — until they get overrun and silenced by the next epoch of victors.
In “Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt,” a collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum and its virtually unparalleled ancient Egyptian art collection, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation looks up the nose of the victor’s story to stage what 25 centuries of losing the culture war looked like.
Mostly, there was no nose to look up once the victors or vandals left their mark. Ancient Egyptians ascribed spiritual power to sculpture, especially funerary sculpture, so there were many good reasons for hacking off the nose of a tomb sculpture.
Stephanie Weissberg, associate curator for the Pulitzer, explained that period tomb robbers who struck when the graves were fresh (give or take a century) would lop off sculptures’ noses because it deprived that sculpted spirit of air. That was thought to quash the dead victim’s spiritual retribution for robbing his or her grave.
Then any time there was a new sheriff on the ancient upper Nile, the old gods and king statues would get snuffed out at the nose and lose arms and beards.
When the startup Christians came along centuries later and built cells in sacred Egyptian spaces, the monks butchered the noses (and other body parts) of the sculptures they found and left the hacked stone appendages there as a sort of drop mic of desecration.
It might sound like butchered ancient sculpture, no matter how rich the back story, would not be much to look at. But the Pulitzer stages the work in ways that give you a lot to see as a sequenced exhibition, and the series of interconnected tableaux adds to the haunting and sometimes almost grisly beauty of the sculptural fragments.
Weissberg explained the simple, effective staging strategy used throughout the show of pairing a fragment with a more complete surviving figure similar to the one that got mutilated by the thief, victor or religious usurper. The more completed figures help you fill in the fragments in your mind and see what parts got mutilated. The fragments speak to the more fully embodied remnants, too, in the sad way loss gives shape to life.
The Brooklyn Museum (whose senior curator Edward Bleiberg co-curated the show with Weissberg) has a vast ancient Egyptian collection, and the Pulitzer’s unique, art-in-itself building has quite a bit of exhibit space between two levels and several twists and turns. These facts taken together spotlight the deliberate pacing of the show and the curators’ righteous statement that these pieces and pairings from the past need some space to speak to us.
The museum’s Cube Gallery, the main-level side room (down the long hall that overlooks the lower-level performance space), exhibits just two pieces: a small mutilated humanoid head and shoulders on one wall facing a large complete stone sarcophagus of the type this head was hacked from. Come to think of it — and the Pulitzer gives you plenty of space and time to think about it — having the best face you put forward toward the hereafter chopped from your coffin lid, punched right off your ticket to ride into glory, is enough for one room.
The Pulitzer and Brooklyn Museum do not overplay their hand, or nose, or face. Sometimes one culture’s mutilation is just another culture’s sensible recycling. Weissberg explained how Islamic victors in the land of the dead pharaohs did not have any axe to grind with the old kings or gods or any insecure need to show that they were the baddest new religion in the valley of death. They just knew a good chunk of stone when they saw one. Some of these spiritual sculptures were damaged with no more profound intention or grudge than a 2x4 is cut to size on a jobsite today.
The exhibit brilliantly ends in the Pulitzer’s lower level with a black stone base of a mutilated sculpture with nothing left but two feet. The Islamic occupiers were not spooked or intimidated by this spiritual offering to vanquished, vanished royalty or their pet gods. They just had new construction going up and here was some good stone.
I imagined people walking away from these ancient sculpted feet on a warm day (the show opens on March 22 and stays up through August 11). I imagined people going outside in that enchanted courtyard at the Pulitzer, the Water Court, taking off their footwear, and looking at their living feet. Maybe taking feet selfies, pictorial feet fragments, in the sunlit courtyard. I imagined people walking away from the Pulitzer — or moving however they move — feeling the more completed figure that is yourself.
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