opposite Awol Erizku, Nefertiti (Black Power). Neon light on coated stainless steel, 2018. Size: 180 x 130.6 x 13cm

Visions of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt has provided endless inspiration for artists and designers, whether ancient or modern. Benjamin Hinson and Anna Ferrari, curators of a new exhibition on Egypt’s artistic legacy, investigate this cultural phenomenon, its links to politics and power, and how contemporary Egyptian artists have made ancient imagery their own.


Artists have looked to Egypt for centuries. For many observers, it is a phenomenon synonymous with the 1920s, when the rediscovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the story of a boy king buried with his riches sparked a ‘Tutmania’ that touched all aspects of popular culture and fashion. The story, however, stretches much further back into history. It runs from antiquity, when the Romans looted monuments to Italy, assimilated Egyptian gods into their pantheon, and made new ‘Egyptianising’ objects; through to the Cleopatra of Shakespeare’s stage and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’; and even recent decades, where artists like David Hockney and Chris Ofili have continued to reinterpret Egyptian imagery and themes.

Awol Erizku, Nefertiti (Black Power). Neon light on coated stainless steel, 2018. Size: 180 x 130.6 x 13cm. IMAGE: © the artist, courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts.

Artistic engagements with Egypt are as old as ancient Egypt itself, but the continued fascination is more than just an aesthetic. It is a visual reflection of how Egypt’s ancient heritage has been contested and reinterpreted for different purposes over time, and frequently reflects underlying political motivations. In Europe, for centuries ancient Egypt was seen as part of a Western story, not an African one. Egypt was held as the origin of wisdom and law, and the precursor of the classical civilisations. The great European powers of the 18th and 19th centuries therefore saw themselves as heirs to Egypt’s legacy. It is no coincidence that artistic uses of ancient Egyptian imagery flourished at the same time these powers attempted to physically control Egypt, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. Similarly, the archaeological discoveries that were shipped to European museums in the Victorian era, inspiring artists and designers, were only possible because of ongoing European colonial influence in Egypt. At each of the moments in which Egypt appears in art, it also tells us something about those reusing it. It cannot be understood without highlighting the – often colonial – motivations underlying it. Visions of Ancient Egypt, the Sainsbury Centre’s groundbreaking new exhibition, explores this enduring legacy and unpicks art’s constructed fantasies of ancient Egypt. For the first time, it brings the story – and issues surrounding it – up to the present day.

above Skyphos (drinking cup) with a Nilotic scene, Parcel silver gilt, 1st-2nd century AD. Size: 10.4 x 17cm below Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Pastime in Ancient Egypt. Oil on canvas, 1864. Size: 113 x 150cm
Skyphos (drinking cup) with a Nilotic scene, Parcel silver gilt, 1st-2nd century AD. Size: 10.4 x 17cm. IMAGE: Paul Ruddock, Wyvern Collection UK.

Ancient Egypt never truly ‘died’; echoes of it were kept alive through both religious stories and the accounts of Greek and Roman authors. The name Egypt was therefore always present in the Western mind, even if it was a distorted vision. Part of Egypt’s appeal is that its iconography is highly mutable, overlaid with different meanings to suit various agendas. In architecture, for example, Egyptian elements can act as a cipher for permanence and stability (and thus Victorian industrial works like the Clifton suspension bridge); the arcane and mysterious (typified by Freemasons’ halls across the world); or the sublime and ideas of death (every cemetery contains obelisks and pyramids as grave markers). Even today, Egypt means wildly different things to different groups; for Hollywood, ancient Egypt evokes discovery and adventure, but in Afrofuturism, it represents the sophistication and great age of African civilisations. There is no ‘one’ Egypt.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Pastime in Ancient Egypt. Oil on canvas, 1864. Size: 113 x 150cm. IMAGE: © Harris Museum & Art Gallery.

Until the 19th century, travel to Egypt was a rarity. Most artists encountered Egypt through the objects brought to Rome in ancient times, and thus Egypt was understood through a classical lens. Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt and resultant publications like the Description de l’Égypte introduced new monuments to artists for the first time, including now-iconic temples such as Edfu and Dendera. In the late 19th century, increasing archaeological discoveries provided further source material for jewellers, furniture makers, and Orientalist artists who used objects from museum collections to lend ‘authenticity’ to their paintings.

above William Holman Hunt, Egyptian Chair, 1857. Size: 84 x 44cm
William Holman Hunt, Egyptian Chair, 1857. Size: 84 x 44cm. IMAGE: © Birmingham Museums.

The story reached a new height with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s treasures in the 1920s, but it did not stop there. Throughout the 20th century, modernist artists continued to look to ancient Egypt for inspiration. Modernists sought to distance themselves from academic training and the traditional ‘canonical’ sources of classical art, and looked instead to non-Western cultures beyond this canon, including Egypt. For Alberto Giacometti, who first physically encountered pharaonic sculptures as a young artist in Florence in 1921, ancient Egyptian art represented reality more closely than any Western art since the Renaissance. Egypt remained a key reference when Giacometti later settled in Paris and became a regular visitor of the Louvre’s collections. This study is typified by his 1958-59 sculpture Standing Woman. Depicting a figure on a block-like base, in a frontal pose with its arms along its sides, it speaks directly to ancient statuettes. Just as Victorian artists turned to museum collections for inspiration, modernist artists continued that tradition.

Other 20th-century artists looked instead to other qualities of Egyptian art. Hockney was inspired by Egypt while still a student, an interest further enhanced both by a visit to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum in 1962, and to Egypt in 1963. These encounters spurred numerous Egypt-inspired paintings. In all of these works, Hockney showcases a playful attitude to the formal qualities of ancient Egyptian art – take his 1961 student work Egyptian Head Descending into Disappearing Clouds, featuring a distinctly Egyptian sideways profile.

above Joshua Reynolds, Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl. Oil on canvas, 1759. Size: 76.2 x 63.5cm
Joshua Reynolds, Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl. Oil on canvas, 1759. Size: 76.2 x 63.5cm. IMAGE: © Historic England Archive.

Like Giacometti and Hockney, artists over the last hundred years have continued to respond to, and reinterpret, ideas of ancient Egypt, and today it is embedded in public consciousness through film, fashion, and music. While historical uses of ancient Egypt held a political context, this contemporary story is no less complex. In a modern world more cognisant of the dangers of (mis)representing other cultures, should the continued appeal of ancient Egypt be seen as appropriation, or appreciation? Is it different when the culture in question is ‘dead’? Visions of Ancient Egypt invites audiences to debate and discuss exactly who these visions serve.

One way in which ancient Egyptian iconography is used to explore such themes is in discussions of race. As mentioned above, European narratives historically enfolded ancient Egypt into the same story as the classical civilisations, divorcing Egypt from its African context. Racism was embedded in early Egyptology; Flinders Petrie, for example, may have been the ‘father’ of Egyptology, but was a eugenicist and race theorist, who held that pharaonic civilisation was founded by an invading foreign race that, in prehistory, conquered a cruder, native population. For him, the glory of pharaonic Egypt could not possibly have stemmed from a native Egyptian community. Similarly, the Orientalist fantasies of ancient Egypt created by artists such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Poynter, and Edwin Long included real Egyptian artefacts copied from museum collections to provide academic ‘authenticity’, but their figures of Egyptians themselves were often distinctly white, visibly European.

opposite left Alberto Giacometti, Standing Woman. Bronze, 1958-59. Size: 130.7 x 20 x 34.5cm opposite right David Hockney, Egyptian Head Disappearing into Descending Clouds. Oil on canvas, 1961.Size: 61.2 x 52.5cm
Alberto Giacometti, Standing Woman. Bronze, 1958-59. Size: 130.7 x 20 x 34.5cm. IMAGE: Sainsbury Centre Collection © Alberto Giacometti Estate.

In contrast, some artists are now using ancient Egyptian motifs and figures to make powerful statements about reclaiming Egypt as black identity. This continues a trajectory begun in the 1920s. At the same time as Tutankhamun’s treasures saturated popular culture, African-American artists of the Harlem Renaissance wished to reposition Egypt as part of their heritage, tracing it back to an august ancient civilisation, and to inspire pride in African-American culture at a time when, despite emancipation, many remained oppressed, disenfranchised, and segregated. Artists like Meta Warwick Fuller and Aaron Douglas drew upon ancient Egyptian visual culture to create powerful representations of the modern African-American experience.

Today, black artists continue that story. Take, for example, Chris Ofili’s Cleopatra. Typified by Elizabeth Taylor’s Hollywood depiction, Western tradition has painted Cleopatra – the last pharaoh of Egypt, herself a Ptolemaic Greek by descent – as a beautiful seductress, the quintessential femme fatale, but this is a product of Roman propaganda that has indelibly coloured her legacy. Ofili instead recasts Cleopatra as a black African queen wearing a crown and posed in a regal three-quarter-length portrait. Ofili, who was born in Britain of Nigerian parents, invites us to reconsider the ways in which Cleopatra has variously been cast, adopted, and exoticised.

David Hockney, Egyptian Head Disappearing into Descending Clouds. Oil on canvas, 1961.Size: 61.2 x 52.5cm. IMAGE: © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery).

The bust of Nefertiti has been particularly prominent in race discourse. Ethiopian-American artist Awol Erizku’s Nefertiti (Black Power) reclaims the Egyptian queen as specifically African royalty, and as a powerful symbol of African-American pride and empowerment. In this neon work, Erizku weaves together African, East Asian, and North American cultural references, bringing together an African queen with Chinese characters reading ‘black power’, to address issues of race, identity, and politics. The bust of Nefertiti of course also comes with additional baggage around cultural heritage and ownership. Excavated in 1912, it went on display in Berlin in the 1920s and its return to Egypt has been requested and debated since.

One of Visions of Ancient Egypt’s key aims is to recentre Egypt’s position in its own story. The continued influence of Egypt in art and design is traditionally examined through a Western lens; Egypt’s own voice in the narrative has historically been ignored. A prevailing excuse for this lack of attention is that Egypt’s double religious conversion, first to Christianity and then Islam, formed a clear break between ancient and modern, severing Egyptian attachment to the pharaonic past. In the 19th century, this belief acted as justification for European control of Egypt; Egyptians were painted as indifferent to the past, or – especially after 1835, when antiquities legislation put European access to artefacts at risk – as active threats to it.

below Chris Ofili, Cleopatra. Oil on canvas, 1992. Size: 70 x 45cm
Chris Ofili, Cleopatra. Oil on canvas, 1992. Size: 70 x 45cm. IMAGE: IMAGE: © Royal College of Art.

Yet while there was a cultural and religious break between Islamic and ancient Egypt, engagements with the pharaonic past did not stop. They have been ongoing since medieval times. When European travellers first started to visit and write accounts of Egypt in the 17th century, Muslim chroniclers, alchemists, and geographers had been recording their own accounts of the monuments for centuries. Egyptian engagements were not just long-lasting, they were also complex and multifaceted. At each of the important moments explored in Visions, Egypt was also engaging with its pharaonic past through art.

For example, many people are familiar with the satirical cartoons of Punch, which lampooned political events from the late 19th century onwards. Fewer people are aware of the cartoons of Egyptian journalist Yaqub Sanu, known by his pen-name of Abu Naddara. Born in 1839, Sanu became a journalist who wrote in both Arabic and French. In 1878, he founded his magazine Abu Naddara Zarqa (‘The Man in the Blue Glasses’). This publication, as well as Sanu’s subsequent magazines l’Almonsef (‘the Fair’) and at-tawwaddud (‘Sympathies’, published concurrently in French as Sympathisons / ‘Let’s Sympathise’), made heavy and critical reference to the politics of the day, offering scathing denouncements of the ruling Khedive Isma’il and his relationship with colonial Britain. These critiques were illustrated with satirical cartoons, often making use of pharaonic imagery, to ensure that even the illiterate could understand them. Isma’il in particular was depicted as ‘Pharaoh’ – here, not a benevolent figure representing Egypt’s great past, but the tyrannical figure of Biblical and Qur’anic narratives. In this way, Egyptian political commentators responded to colonial pressures through pharaonic imagery.

Mahmoud Mokhtar supervising the achievement of Nahdat Misr / Le Réveil de l’Égypte (Egypt Awakened), c.1928. IMAGE: courtesy of Emad Abou-Ghazi.

Abu Naddara’s work, and the power of pharaonic symbols as political tools, would ultimately prefigure phenomena in the 20th century. In the 1920s, at the same time Tutmania gripped both Western designers and African-American artists, a generation of Egyptian artists who had trained in Europe also turned to pharaonic imagery, to make their own statements about Egyptian identity and nationalism. The unearthing of the king by a British archaeologist took on symbolic significance, as it coincided with the rise of nationalism and demands for independence from Britain. It spurred a domestic political and artistic movement known as Pharaonism, which revived ancient imagery to make direct links between pharaonic and modern Egypt, and a lost glorious past. Unlike other nationalist ideologies, Pharaonism was grounded in territory – to Egyptian intellectuals, pharaonic civilisation was inexorably linked to Egypt’s landscape, the same landscape shared by contemporary Egyptians, allowing them to reach across time and create an idealised community linking past and present, rooted in the country itself.

Egyptian modernist artists who had trained in Europe, like Mahmoud Mokhtar, turned to this theme in their works. A recurring motif was the fellaha (peasant woman), a figure deeply associated with the land of Egypt. In Mokhtar’s monumental sculpture Nahdat Misr / Le Réveil de l’Égypte (Egypt Awakened), inaugurated in 1928, a fellaha is depicted alongside a rising sphinx. This sculpture crafted a potent image of a personified modern Egyptian nation, embracing its ancient past.

Though a powerful movement, Pharaonism ultimately reflected the tastes of a narrow cultural elite. It ignored the Muslim culture that had prevailed in Egypt for over 1,200 years – and to which most Egyptians felt far stronger attachment. Subsequent Egyptian artists, however, would continue this movement for decades afterwards.

right Chant Avedissian, Sederi Vest. Cotton, 1988. Size: 83 x 79cm below Khaled Hafez, Flying Beatle. Mixed media on canvas, 2016. Size: 140 x 200cm
Chant Avedissian, Sederi Vest. Cotton, 1988. Size: 83 x 79cm. IMAGE: courtesy of Sabrina Amrani and The Estate of Chant Avedissian.

Today, Egyptian artists respond to the country’s pharaonic heritage, and its place in Egypt’s cultural identity, in a number of ways. Khaled Hafez explores the idea of ancient Egyptian painting as a form of graphic novel, with serialised images and ancient Egyptian gods as the superheroes of their day. His monumental triptychs playfully examine these links – for example, bodybuilders with Batman masks in the ‘hieratic’ pose traditional to Egyptian art – to demonstrate the continuation of these archetypes. Similarly, to Hafez, just as Egyptian art served to extol the power and virtue of the pharaohs, the artificially perfect bodies in advertising and commercials represent the idealised figures of today. A recurring theme in Hafez’s works is the idea of dichotomies – East/West, good/evil – in modern culture. By contrasting ancient Egyptian figures with images of contemporary pop culture, warfare, and commercialism, Hafez addresses the multiple competing elements that make up modern Egyptian identity.

Khaled Hafez, Flying Beatle. Mixed media on canvas, 2016. Size: 140 x 200cm. IMAGE. courtesy of Khaled Hafez / photo © Khaled Hafez.

Multidisciplinary artist Sara Sallam’s approach to ancient Egypt is deeply personal, exploring Egyptian attitudes to their ancient past, and specifically themes of death, memory, and mourning. In her photo series The Fourth Pyramid Belongs to Her, Sallam’s grandmother is represented both as a smiling figure in a portrait photograph, emulating the bust of Nefertiti, and standing tall in the place of one of the Colossi of Memnon. She explains: ‘To accentuate the absence of collective mourning for the ancient Egyptians, I portray my grandmother as one of the pharaohs… projecting, in turn, my personal grieving for her onto them.’ Sallam invites audiences to encounter a lost, ancient heritage through the eyes of a woman mourning her grandmother.

Other artists reflect on ancient Egypt within a wider cultural context. Chant Avedissian’s works fuse his Armenian-Egyptian heritage with techniques and concepts acquired during his art studies abroad. A key inspiration in his art is the idea of an underlying artistic commonality that links the various societies of the Middle East and Asia and speaks across geographical boundaries. His works therefore combine pharaonic iconography with elements of multiple other cultures past and present. One way Avedissian explores this is through costume. As he explains, ‘The haik of the Atlas [Mountains] resembles the melaya of the Nile, which also resembles the sari of India… they are variations on a theme.’ The costumes themselves, which Avedissian made, were created through an appliqué technique similar to the khayamiya textiles traditional to Egypt. However, Avedissian actually first encountered appliqué in Rajasthan, and the geometric shapes of his vests were inspired not only by pharaonic patterns but also Bedouin carpets, central Asian brick walls, and Syrian mother-of-pearl inlaid boxes.

below Sara Sallam, The Fourth Pyramid Belongs To Her. Plate 1, digital photographic collage from the series The Fourth Pyramid Belongs To Her, 2017.
Sara Sallam, The Fourth Pyramid Belongs To Her. Plate 1, digital photographic collage from the series The Fourth Pyramid Belongs To Her, 2017. IMAGE: courtesy of the artist and Tintera Gallery.

For the first time, Visions of Ancient Egypt takes a holistic approach to explore how Egyptian artists have – and continue to – respond to Egypt’s pharaonic legacy. It is a story of beauty and design, but also power and politics. Given that 2022 marks two significant milestones in the history of Western Egyptology – the bicentenary of Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of hieroglyphs and the centenary of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – there is no better time to reflect on ancient Egypt’s impact on the world of art and design, and to unpick the constructed fantasies of the ancient civilisation that this represents.

Visions of Ancient Egypt runs at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich between 3 September and 1 January 2023. Visit sainsburycentre.ac.uk for more information. The exhibition is supported by Viking.

An accompanying book, Visions of Ancient Egypt, will be published by the University of East Anglia (£30).