All’s Pharaoh at the National Gallery of Victoria

There’s an enduring fascination with ancient Egypt. Perhaps it’s the imagery—there is a pictorial nature to the culture, through hieroglyphs and the adornment of objects. Or maybe it’s the abundance and quality of materials from the period—burying objects deep in the desert surrounding the fertile soil of the Nile Valley allowed for the preservation of organic material, in a way uncommon in many other ancient civilisations. Through these materials we know a surprising amount about ancient Egyptians. Considering the 5,000 years separating us, there are many different stories to tell— and people are still riveted.

The story the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is telling in their 2024 Winter Masterpieces exhibition is of the pharaoh. “The pharaoh was the most powerful person in ancient Egypt,” says Miranda Wallace, senior curator of international exhibition projects at the NGV. “The one for whom the most expensive temples were built, the most lavish art was created. It is the stuff that has lasted the longest, so a lot of the material evidence from Egypt relates to the pharaoh, and to the elite culture, the court culture, around the pharaoh.”

Plaque of Amenemhat IV Probably Byblos, Lebanon 12th Dynasty, reign of Amenemhat IV, about 1808- 1799 BC Gold H 2.9 cm, W 3.1 cm, D 0.1 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

The show has been in the works since 2017, when the NGV began talks with the British Museum. The result is the largest loan the latter has ever made to an international institution—over 500 objects ranging from sculpture, tomb and temple architecture, coffins and funerary objects, and over 150 items of jewellery. It has taken over 2,000 hours of conservation work to get them on Australian soil.

In what Wallace calls “a peculiar circumstance of post-Covid programming”, this is not the only ancient Egyptian exhibition happening in Australia this year. Sydney’s Australian Museum is wrapping up its Ramses & the Gold of the Pharaohs show in May (the most popular exhibition in the Museum’s history, with 350,000 visitors), while the National Museum of Australia in Canberra is hosting Discovering Ancient Egypt until September. “Each of them is quite distinct in terms of the stories that are told and the material that is covered,” says Wallace. “But our show is also being presented in an art gallery. And we thought, this is a great opportunity to think about how people encounter this work … We wanted to make sure that the exhibition had a different kind of feel.”

Amuletic throwstick of Pharaoh Akhenaten Royal tomb, Amarna, Egypt 18th Dynasty, reign of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten, about 1352-1336 BC, Blue faience, H 9 cm, W 39 cm, D 2 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

Pharaoh occupies the entire ground floor of the NGV and is structured in a specific way that feels abstract, architectural, and contemporary. Though it covers three millennia—the artefacts span the 1st Dynasty (c.3000 BCE) to the Roman period (3rd century CE)—the layout and lighting is designed to represent the passing of one day, a day symbolic of the cyclical passage of time. It begins in the early morning, the period of new birth. The middle of the exhibition is the temple space, “evoking the time of the middle of the day, the white heat of the desert, and the intensity of life under the heat of the sun”. It ends in the darkness of the evening: “The eternal night of the underworld.”

Many of the pieces are notable for their exquisite beauty, which evidence the bombast of the elite society of gods and kings. But there are other pieces, smaller and more intricate, that round out the story beyond what the pharaohs might have wanted us to see. One such piece is a 5,000-year-old ivory shoe label, only four centimetres wide, made to denote the pair of sandals that belonged to the pharaoh, and depicts him striking another figure. “It is one of the earliest depictions from the ancient world of a ruler, and a ruler shown in quite typical ways in terms of propagandistic art,” says Wallace. “He is ‘smiting’ his enemy. It’s an image of violence, of suppression.”

Ivory label with King Den, Abydos, Egypt, 1st Dynasty, about 2985 BC, Ivory, H 4.5cm, W 5.3cm, D 0.3cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

Wallace admits that “There’s a lot we don’t know about ancient Egypt. A lot of it is shrouded in mystery.” A large part of this unknown is the lives of citizens, among them the makers—artists, sculptors, and jewellers—the people who crafted these objects. “It’s much harder to find information about the people who made them. Although, there are objects in the show that do give us an insight into the makers of these extraordinary pieces.” These are small but significant moments. There are several pieces from Deir el-Medina, the area where the craftspeople lived, that range from devotional statues to a very sweet drawing on limestone of a donkey.

Exhibitions like this inevitably raise valid questions of colonialism and repatriation, with so much of ancient Egypt existing outside of Egypt. “The root of it is the question, how do we justify how we present cultures from other places?” asks Wallace. “There’s the issue around who’s allowed to have them, and where they should be. I think we want to be conscious of all of that, but I don’t think we want to shut down access to this material. There is also a lot of sophisticated debate about how you manage collections in your own museums—how do you manage collections to tell these stories?”

National Gallery of Victoria

14 June—6 October

This article was originally published in the May/June 2024 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Feature Words by Sally Gearon