Sunday, June 28, 2009

Ankhesenamen-The Lost Queen

One of the strengths of this exhibit is its inclusion of objects from the family, friends and court of Amarna and Tutankhamen. While the golden mask remains in Cairo, being too fragile to travel, the other items give a more comprehensive look at this fascinating period in Egyptian history.

When I was a teenager, I read "The Lost Queen of Egypt." It was a fanciful (but in some ways) historically accurate recreation of the life of Ankhesenamen, the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti and the wife of Tutankhamen. I loved this book, which was filled with exquisite line drawings based on the art of the Amarna period. Starting with her childhood, Lucile Morrison imagined Ankhesenamen's life in Amarna as a princess of the Royal Family and her dawning awareness of the treachery and intrigue surrounding her father. In the book, she is able to escape from the royal palace after Tutankhamen's death and live the life of a non-royal woman with her lover, an artist from Crete. Would that it were so - but her real life history is even more amazing.

Records were found in the Hittite archive outlining a strange sequence of events. In all the 3,000 years of Egyptian history, these letters are the only personal ones from a Queen of Egypt that have been found. After the death of Tutankhamen a queen referred to as Dahamunzu writes to King Suppiluliumas and asks him to send her one of his many sons to marry and become lord of the land of Egypt.

"He who was my husband is dead and I have no son. Should I then perhaps take one of my servants and make him my husband?"

King Suppiluliuma suspects some trick and sends one of his envoys to investigate. After some time the King decides to send his son, Prince Zannanza, to Egypt. The prince dies, possibly murdered, and the King expects foul play. Later, he declared war on Egypt. The last letters in the exchange show a correspondence between Aye and Suppiluliuma. All of Ankhesenamen's attempts to escape whatever fate was planned for her failed. We will never know her motives or why she even thought such a scheme could succeed.

There is some indication that she married Aye, who may have been her grandfather. Amarna family relationships were complex beyond belief with intermarriage carried to a new level, with father-daughter marriages as well as the more common brother-sister marriages. There may have even been a father-son marriage! The elderly Aye was pharaoh after Tutankhamen and a ring with their joint cartouches was found in Aye's tomb. But after that, silence. She disappears from history, her ultimate fate a mystery.

But I love to think that there was true love between her and Tutankhamen and that the numerous images of her in Tutankhamen's funeral goods are not there for solely religious reasons. The four statues of the golden goddesses who guarded his canopic chest are all portraits of the queen. They are shown together in various scenes on the shrines, the chests for clothing. She is languidly handing him as arrow as he hunts along the Nile. She waits upon his pleasure, sitting on the floor beside him, her arm resting on his knee, anointing him with perfume, both of them wrapped up in each other.

The Flower Song (Excerpt)

To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.

(Translated by M.V. Fox)

When Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, several items showed the image of Tutankhamen's Queen. One of the most famous objects is the golden throne, which shows Ankhesenamen standing before her husband. She is apparently anointing the king. Ankhesenamen is shown wearing a short Nubian wig and her regalia consist of a modius consisting of uraei topped with the horned sun disk and the double plumes. The sun disk and plumes associate her with the goddess Hathor. Above them shines the sun disk of the Aton, its rays ending in hands as they bless the royal pair.

I am thy wife, O great one -- do not leave me!
Is it thy good pleasure, O my brother that I should go far from thee!
But thou remain silent and speak not.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Art Going This Weekend?

Up at:
Of course, this is also Gay Pride weekend so be mindful of the traffic!

The mother of all bling returns

After 30 years, King Tut returns to the De Young with more items and an even larger flurry of publicity and even more hype. There will be lines, there will be expensive tickets and there will be hordes of people trying to see every shiny item. For many, what gets lost are all the complex and still unknown problems of his life, as well as that of his much more important father Akhenaton. But it's a big money maker and museums need that in these difficult times. I understand that much of the profit will be going to the Cairo Museum where I hope it will be spent wisely. So, here's a closer look at some of the precious which you will probably not be able to get a close up of if you attend the show in person.

Ceremonial Dagger and Sheath: There were two daggers found within the king's mummy wrappings. This one is absolutely extraordinary. It and its sheath are of solid gold and the tiny gold granulations and cloisonne work are remarkable. The sheath is especially an indication of the artistic ability and skill of the goldsmith. (Andreas F. Voegelin / Antikenmuseum Basel)

Pectoral With Solar/Lunar Emblems and Scarab: The ancient Egyptian ability to show symbols that are meant for protection with such a creative sense of design is astounding. In this beautiful pendant, the scarab in the center was merged with a hawk, both symbols of the sun. Above the scarab are images that represent the moon. (Kenneth Garrett / National Geographic 2008)

Chased gold Falcon Collar, representing the Pharaoh's status as the Falcon of Egypt. Of all the gods and goddesses of Egypt, the two best known are probably Isis and Osiris. Osiris was regarded as the oldest and, for a long time, the most important god who lead the Egyptians out of savagery, giving them laws and teaching them how to cultivate the land. He married his sister Isis and ruled with wisdom and benevolence. He was murdered by his jealous brother Set but Isis gathered up the sundered parts (including THAT part) and was able to conceive a son, Horus. Horus, represented by a falcon, defeated his wicked uncle and regained the throne. Henceforth, the king of Egypt was called "The Horus," and the falcon became one of the personal totems of pharaoh.

Viscera Coffin (detail), Dynasty 18, Reign of Tutankhamun 1332-1322 BCE. Photo: Andreas F. Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung Ludwig

Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven,
Thou living Aton, the beginning of life!
When thou art risen on the eastern horizon,
Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.
Thou art gracious, great, glistening, and high over every land;
Thy rays encompass the lands to the limit of all that thou hast made:
As thou art Re, thou reachest to the end of them;
(Thou) subduest them (for) thy beloved son.
Though thou art far away, thy rays are on earth;
Though thou art in their faces, no one knows thy going.

Of all the items in the show, this one is probably the most historically important. Akhenaton was the most radical king in all Egyptian history. He abandoned the old capital of Thebes and built a new one, dedicated to the glory of his personal god, Aton. He ordered his servants to deface and destroy the the name of Amon-Re, the most powerful god (and priesthood) in Ancient Egypt. Other gods were not spared and in some cases, the plural for gods was scratched out. The surviving hymn, while probably not written personally by the king, is unique in the long history of Egyptian religion. A spirit of joyousness and an appreciation of life flow from what we know of faith of Aton; even the temples were open to the sun. Eventually, sadly, the whole edifice collapsed and the faith of the Aton, along with its founder were oblitered for centuries by the powerful and vindictive priests of Amon-Re. None of the important tombs and mummies of the family have been discovered. Tut was a very very minor king and while the treasures of his tomb dazzle, there are still many questions unanswered.

Tut Links
Information about the Ancient Egypt from Barbara Mertz's funny yet informative book: Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs. (Harper Collins, 2007).

Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation
The electronic publication of Howard Carter's records of the excavation of the tomb of King Tut! Brought to you by the Griffith Institute.

Eighteenth Dynasty: King Tut'ankhamun
Enjoy viewing some of the treasures from Tut's tomb through this virtual museum site.

The Diaries of Howard Carter

De Young Museum Web Site:
images courtesy of National Geographic

Monday, June 22, 2009

Kalligraphia 2009 at the SF Main Library

In the “Story of Writing,” Donald Jackson remembers learning to write with a pencil and the thrill of actually making an “egg- shaped O. The joy that he talks about is one that is familiar to modern practitioners of the ancient art of shaping beautiful letters. In the east, calligraphy is still a valued art form but it’s not that widely practiced or recognized as an art in the west. Printing eventually dealt a deathblow to the hand written books. In turn, the study of formal letterforms or handwriting has now been widely replaced by computer and computer generated type. But the San Francisco Friends of Calligraphy and like-minded organizations across the United States and Great Britain continue to maintain the traditions of this ancient art. They struggle with inkblots and spelling errors, caused by Titivillus, the patron demon of scribes. There are passionate discussions of ink, pen nibs and paper. They hold conferences, retreats and give demonstrations where the love of fine letters shines through. They sponsor calligraphy shows – the one now up at the SF Main Library - is their 15th show in the organizations’ 30-year history. As Donald Jackson said, “When we make things with our hands, we put into them the energy which comes from our innermost self. ..these marks are an intimate link with the calligrapher’s heart and mind.” The exhibit on the 6th floor of the library is not only a link with our past but a reflection of passion, beauty and energy of an ancient art in our present.

Melissa Dinwiddie: XYS Triptych
"These letters are from a decorated alphabet I made at the 2009 FOB Retread, with letters and icons, based on a square shape, that I can use in unlimited combinations for the Ketubot, prints and cards that I design.”

Through Aug. 23. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon. and Sat., 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., noon-6 p.m. Fri., noon-5 p.m Sun. Skylight Gallery, San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St., S.F. (415) 557-4277.

Images from julie michelle at

Donald Jackson. The Story of Writing. Taplinger Publishing Co. Inc. New York, New York, 1981. pp. 10-13.
Marc Drogin, Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique (London: Prior, and Monclair, New Jersey: Schram, 1980), 18-19.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Art and Power in the African Savanna

In the past, when the Westerners looked at African art, they brought their own preconceived ideas of the primitive and the savage. Twentieth century artists like Picasso and Matisse found the graphic qualities of African art inspiring but knew nothing of the history, culture or religion of the peoples from whom it was taken. The current exhibit at the de Young remedies some of that ignorance with a small but intense and powerful show of art from four Central African Cultures: the Luba, Songye, Chokwe, and Luluwa. The area represented covers present-day Angola, Zaire and the Congo and much of it was collected, for various reasons, by the 19th century Belgium and Portuguese administrators in that region.

Songye female figure - embedded with bass pins to signify the desire for a male child

The power objects blended art and religion and were originally created as a vehicle to mediate between the worlds of the spirits, the earth and the ancestors. But, according to Constantine Petradis, the curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of art and curator of this exhibit, the power embodied in the nearly 60 sculptures and masks on view was not only religious but political as well.

That fusion of worldly and spiritual purposes explains why "power objects" — formerly called fetishes by scholars — came to be large, elaborately carved sculptures that showed "great refinement in anatomical and decorative details," he says.

The sacred royalty of these tribal cultures incorporated religious elements into the justification for their rule. Like the monarchies of Western Europe, the position of the kings was seen as divinely inspired. The complex coronation ritual involved religious confirmation from the spirits. The objects used in the coronation rituals were seen as containers for spiritual and earthly power. The staffs of kingship– several of which are displayed in the show – were to be read from top to bottom and contained emblems of sacred knowledge. Among the Luba, women of the royal family served as custodians of the sacred and secret objects; sometimes they were even the power behind the throne. But the power they were allowed to exert was indirect and bound up with rituals of kingship, renewal and the spirit world.

Songye male figure; the beads are a mark of status as is the skirt/kilt made of rare leopard skins.

Many of these earlier objects have never been exhibited. Dating mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, the works on view were borrowed from private and public collections in the United States and Belgium, a former colonial power in Central Africa.

Though Westerners were often taken with the beautiful carving of the later works, what Africans believed empowered them were the mineral and plant substances, feathers, animal skins — even human hair and nail clippings — that were either inserted into their cavities or, in the case of oils and ointments, rubbed onto the objects.

Chokwe Male Mask, Angola

Those accouterments were meant to "transform (the sculpture) from an empty, useless piece of wood to a power mediator — to a powerful transistor, so to speak, between this world and the world of the spirits," Petridis says. The power embedded in these figures worked to assist the community in times of danger and to glorify political authority.

Other, smaller figures served more personal purposes. Some, like the female figure almost entirely embedded with bass tacks suggested a desire for a male child or perhaps even protection against smallpox, a much feared disease. Other figures and masks glorified the culture’s idea of female beauty or venerated dynastic heroes and founders of the ruling dynasties. The Nkishi were prayers to the spirit world for a healthy birth, a successful hunt, or a triumph over an enemy. In the past, when the figures had served their purpose, many (those not associated with the royal families or the rituals of sacred kingship) were thrown away. This venue gives a much more nuanced and complex view of African art, organized by a knowledgeable Western scholar and without the colonial patina of ignorance and prejudice toward “darkest Africa.”

The exhibit was originally on view at the Cleveland Museum of art, as well as the Menii Collection, Houston, Texas. The de Young is the final venue.

at the de Young from June 20-October 11, 2009

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Rock and Roll at the Old Mint

Backstage Pass: A Sweeping History of Rock 'n Roll at the Old Mint

June 10 through 14, 2009: 12 Noon to 5 PM

The Old Mint, Fifth and Mission Streets

SFMHS, in conjunction with Wolfgang's Vault, is proud to present Backstage Pass: A Sweeping History of Rock 'n Roll at the Old Mint.

This limited engagement will exhibit select works from Bill Graham archives from Wolfgang's Vault, the world's largest collection of live concert recordings and music memorabilia. More than 100 rarely seen historic banners, posters, photographs and videos of rock legends and concerts, including Carlos Santana, The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Huey Lewis and The News, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Linda Ronstadt, to name a few, performing at San Francisco's top concert venues will be on display.

Admission is $10 per person
All proceeds will benefit the SFMHS education programs and facilities.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Lords of the Samurai-opening Friday

“Lords of the Samurai reinforces the Asian Art Museum’s reputation for providing quality exhibitions compromising outstanding artworks that tell remarkable stories,” says Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum. The current exhibit continues the Asian’s remarkable series of stunning exhibits; further cementing its status as a world-class institution. The works displayed come from the collection of the Hokosawa family, one of Japan’s most respected, erudite and long-lived military clans. They strove to embody the ideal characteristics of the warrior elite by pursuing achievements in two areas: culture (bun) and arms (bu).

The current head of this 700-year old family, Hosokawa Morihiro attributes the preservation of their collection to luck. However, a great deal of the credit must also lay in past generations' politically astute choices. There are over 160 objects in the exhibit, seven of which have been designated important Cultural Properties, the highest award given by the Japanese government. None of these objects have been seen outside Japan; the depth and breadth of the collection is spectacular.

For a guy take on the exhibit plus photos of the absolutely fabulous armor, guns and weapons, read:
SF Mike:
Matty Boy:
For further reading: Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Patterns of Japanese Culture.
For background on the culture that preceded the Shogunate: Ivan Morris. The World of the Shining Prince (The Tale of Genji)

Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St, San Francisco. 581-3500
other images courtesy of the Asian Museum

Matthew ( pointed out to me that at one time the samurai were a completely exotic concept to most Americans. But now, thanks to a generation of samurai movies and the popularity of recent of movies like “Kill Bill,” samurai are as common as cowboys and Indians in American pop culture. However, the popular image of slice and dice warriors hardly does justice to the complexity of the samurai or their real place in Japanese culture. Samurai means “one who serves” and for over 600 years, the government’s political authority depended on the skill and loyalty of these warriors. The historical tale of the Forty-Seven Ronin who avenged the insult to their lord and then committed ritual suicide (or seppuku) is still part of the living culture of Japan. For 700 of those years, the Hosokawa clan has been intimately linked with not only the highest levels of government but also with the arts of calligraphy, poetry, the tea ceremony, painting and pottery.

Did an age slip by
During those fleeting moments
When I dried my sleeves
Drenched by chrysanthemum dew
On the path through the moundains?
Hosokawa Yusai (1534-1610)

Nine Planet Family Crest

"The “nine planets” in the Hosokawa family crest are actually not all planets or even all celestial bodies. The concept comes from Indian cosmology–the nine grahas. See Wikipedia entry on same. The specific planets (or not) are listed toward the bottom, next to the deities who represent them.

Melissa Rinne, the museum’s assistant curator of Japanese Art.

Daiymo for a day

The museum has created another one of its delightful interactive educational resources. To emphasize the artistic side of the samurai, you can play at being one of the daiymo for a day, wear a robe, sit on a tatami mat in beautifully recreated room and play Go. There's also a writing desk where you can try out your hand at writing poetry.

images courtesy of SF Mike:
The current head of the main family line, Morihiro Hosokawa continues the family's long tradition of interest in the arts. A former Prime Minister of Japan, he is now a noted potter and calligrapher. As a potter, his tea bowls exemplify the Japanese principles of Waba-Sabi, small, earthy and unpretentious, simple but not simplistic.
images courtesy of SF Mike:

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunday at SF MOMA

Today, I went to see the various shows at SFMOMA. So many people have written about the Robert Frank show that I don't think I have anything new to add. The photographers that I respect the most are the ones who were politically progressive, starting with Jacob Riis and his images of the urban poor in turn-of-the-century New York, continuing through Walker Evans, Paul Strand and Margaret Bourke White - all of whom produced what are now iconic and critical images of America. I appreciated the display of his working materials and the acknowledgement of his influences. But it's a pity that the gallery didn't display his photos in the sequence he intended in his book, The Americans; that might have given it a loose narrative sequence and more of an emotional punch.
But the show that just knocked me over was the show comparing the affinities between Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams. Our local art critic had slyly panned O'Keefe for what some other critics saw as the sexual symbolism in her work and for having the burden of being seen as a feminist icon - something which she rejected. However, I fail to see why this means her work is somehow lesser; surely she's not responsible for what the critics say. But, since she is commercially overexposed, I wasn't expecting much. I was wrong. In person, her art is still memorable with startling combinations of size and color, a disciplined painterly technique and a unique artistic sensibility. Even her very smallest works - and there are many in the show - display her emphatic color and delicate brush work combined with striking compositions. The best of her works cross over to abstraction ("that dream thing," as O'Keeffe called it), and then loop back to the figurative, engaging the imagination on many different levels.
In search of the marvelous, she advised Russell Vernon Hunter, "Try to paint your world as though you are the first man looking at it-The wind and the licat-and the cold-The dust-and the vast starlit night ..

Ignore the critics; she's been a target since the beginning and the current review in the Chron is no exception. Instead, go and marvel at her wonder, her razor-sharp vision, and her response to that vision and be astonished. The show is the largest one of her works that I've seen in years and contains many pieces from private collections which are not normally on view.

Oh, and look at the photos by Ansel Adams as well. A close look will reveal that there are, indeed, affinities between the two. It's a show worth the extra surcharge to get in.

Another great review up at Civic Center:

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Ujima Artists Collective

D.A. Arts is proud to present the work of the Ujima Artists Collective – four Tenderloin artists making their debut with an eclectic collection of colorful paintings. Ujima is Swahili for “collective work and responsibility,” and the four artists have brought together their diverse talents and cultures for this project. Harvey Rushing, Kenneth Beasley, and Brock Bates have worked together for four years in an art studio at Central City Hospitality House. They have teamed up with Michael Berninger, who works at the Pearl Art & Craft Supplies on Market Street. “One thing that’s very unique about us,” said Beasley, “is that we’re a multicultural band of artists. We bring all the ingredients of our artistic talents into one canvass.” Ujima will host an art gallery opening on Friday, June 12th at 6:00 pm at D.A. Arts, located in a window display gallery at 135 Sixth Street. The paintings are all by self-taught artists, considered "outsider art" in today's art market but their work is anything but crude. The vibrant colors strengthen, not weaken, the powerful cry against historical and political injustice.
Come to Ujima’s art display opening next Friday – and meet the four artists (who are all excited about making their debut) and ask them questions. D.A. Arts is a project of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, to promote the work of local artists in a Sixth Street window display.
Opening: June 12th
135 Sixth Street.

photos from Beyond The Chron website

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

More On Robert Frank

Elson Lecture 2009: Robert Frank at the National Gallery of Art.
Looking In: Robert Frank's "The Americans," an exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art, is the most comprehensive and in-depth exploration of the single most important book of photographs published since World War II. In this podcast of the annual Elson Lecture, recorded on March 26, 2009, Greenough speaks with the renowned photographer about his career before, during, and after "The Americans."

The lecture can be downloaded via iTunes at