My Art Course in Cairo: Prehistoric & Ancient Egyptian Art (7 Aug)

Course Title:
Masterpieces of Prehistoric & Ancient Egyptian Art

Date & Time:
Thursday, 7 August 2014 – 8:00 pm (2.5 hours)

33 A, al-Meqias Street, Roda, Manial. 4th floor, apt. 9.

Long before the dynastic period in Ancient Egypt, extraordinary manifestations of artistic genius and exceptional craftsmanship abounded in different sites along the Nile Valley from the Delta and all the way to the cataracts and beyond. One cannot possibly fully appreciate the art of Ancient Egypt without understanding its direct precursor(s), specially the Neolithic Cultures of Badari, Omari, Naqada, and others.
The course explores a succession of cultures and styles through masterpieces of both Prehistoric Egyptian Art and Ancient Egyptian Art, with a focus on painting, sculpture, ceramics and jewelry. From the Bird Lady of Naqada to the painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun, these masterpieces will form the backdrop for some fascinating stories and little known facts about art and life in Ancient Egypt.

EGP 300 / Person.
The fees include handouts/readings that will be distributed to the participants. They do not include hard or soft copies of the PowerPoint Presentation.
Audio and video recording are not allowed.

Deadline for reservation/cancellation:
31 July 2014 (If all places are reserved prior to that date, I will announce it).
Please reserve only if you are 100% sure you would attend.

Mohammed Elrazzaz is Professor of Tools for Managing Culture at the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (UIC), Barcelona, since 2010. He holds an MA in Arts & Cultural Management from the same university, and he has a vast experience in the field as founder-moderator of Pen Temple Pilots (2002-2012). He is currently a PhD candidate (Cultural Heritage).

This course is not dedicated to architecture. If you expect a discussion on ‘how the pyramids were built?’, then this is not the course for you. No background whatsoever is necessary for attending this course.

Reservations & Further Inquiries:


Sugar Art in the face of Slavery – Kara Walker

This is one of the most brilliant artworks that I have come across recently: A huge sugar-coated sphinx (35 tonnes of refined sugar) is the centerpiece of an installation/sculpture by the Afro-American artist Kara Walker, titled ‘The Marvelous Sugar Baby’.

The sphinx features the figure of a black African woman, surrounded by much smaller black statues of African children made of molasses and resin, holding what seems to be offerings. These kids are left to ‘melt’ and ‘smell bad’ over time, leaving a black trail that resembles blood. The sight of the melting kids, the strong smell of sweet and rotting sugar and the dark walls of the factory where the sphinx is installed all contribute to the creation of an anti-gesamtkunstwerk…one that cannot be fully digested without some reading and explanation, but such is the case with the vast majority of Contemporary Art, specially cause-related artworks.

The factory where the work is staged is an old one that is about to be demolished, namely the Domino Sugar Refining Plant in New York. In the XIX century, this factory accounted for half the sugar industry in the US, thanks to African slaves that worked under inhumane conditions. The factory continued to function following the abolition of slavery, but still, the working conditions were horrible, provoking protests in the year 2000, until it finally closed down. As she puts it, the artwork is “homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World on the occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.”

But the great thing about this artwork is that is does not employ the all-time-favorite contemporary art resource: the shock factor. There is definitely an immediate impact on the viewer, but then there are layers of meaning and diverse messages that require more engagement by the viewer before they finally ‘dawn’ on him/her. First, the sphinx is an ancient symbol. In Egypt, it’s a silent vigilant that has been there for millennia, watching, surviving, without being able to move or change. Such is the case with many ills of humankind, ones that only assume different forms over the ages, but never really end. The sphinx stands like a goddess, a sugar goddess served by the sweat and the blood of African slaves melting around her, but also a slave goddess that stands triumphant with the abolishing of slavery.

Then there is the contrast of having a black woman made of refined, white sugar. She is at once both pure and artificial, her bare breasts touching on ‘ebony’ sex fantasy filtered through the lens of a white aesthetic. In short: hypocrisy and racism hand-in-hand.

The relevance of this artwork transcends the dark history of the sugar industry in the US. People from so many different cultures and regions would be able to relate one way or another: think of all the victims of coffee and banana plantations in Latin America, tea in India and Ceylon, spices in the East Indies; to the end of the long list.

Sadly, New York still registers high rates of racial discrimination. Walker’s work is an outcry against the past and the present, as the US and Europe still stand on the wrong side of history, this time through outsourcing.

Kid with offerings

Kids melting

Sugar Sphinx 1

Sugar Sphinx

Tales from Zagreb & Three Dalmatian Delights

This is the travel account for my Croatia trip. Scroll down for photos, and click any photo to enlarge it. I start with Dalmatia, which offers one of the most charming Mediterranean experiences; one that combines unique heritage and splendid nature with exquisite cuisine and guaranteed entertainment. Stretching between Zadar and Dubrovnik, the Dalmatian interior is no less exotic than the coastal cities and islands of the Adriatic Sea.

1. Split: The Palace City
The most impressive thing about Split is not the Diocletian Palace per se, but rather the beat of everyday life within the Palace walls. The term ‘Palace’ actually evokes the wrong mental image: The UNESCO World Heritage Palace of Diocletian (c. 300 AD) is in fact an entire city with walls, gates, temples, arcades, streets, to the end of the list. The exceptional state of preservation is what most historians celebrate about the Palace, but for the visitor, what never fails to impress is the way in which the Palace City has been recycled over the centuries, yielding the current urban tissue: Medieval villas, houses, restaurants, bars and stores now occupy pretty much every corner of the Palace, and the Mausoleum of Diocletian was converted into –as you must have guessed- a cathedral in the VII century. This is a fitting metaphor of Christian victory over a bloody emperor that persecuted and tortured Christians in Dalmatia and elsewhere in the world.

The focal point for open air activity in the historic center (which corresponds to the Palace) is the photogenic Peristyle, a rectangular space surrounded by granite columns and vaults that once served as the vestibule to Diocletian’s residence. Most of these columns come from Egypt and Greece, and one can still admire a black sphinx from the Tutmosis era (c. 1500 BC). At night, the Peristyle comes to live when musicians start to sing and play the guitar, as the audience dance and chill at this extraordinary setting. During the day, the gigantic campanile throws its shadow on the nearby columns, as tourists queue to enter the octagonal Mausoleum-Cathedral. Once inside, it would be impossible to miss the highlights: the Romanesque wooden doors (hard walnut) with their carved panels (c.1214), the Romanesque pulpit, and two altars, namely those of St. Domnius (a bishop martyred under Diocletian) and St. Anastasius. The sarcophagus of Diocletian was cast out of the mausoleum and the bones of Christian martyrs were brought from Salona and buried here.

Back to the street, a Romanesque tower here, a Venetian piazza there, a Roman slab, an Ancient Egyptian column, a neat Dalmatian market, there is something for every taste within the city walls and beyond, and there is a pleasant maritime promenade (the Riva) that becomes particularly entertaining during summer evenings. Add to that an excellent culinary offer with delicious seafood, pastas and risottos, and you will have imagined what I mean by ‘Dalmatian Delights’.

2. Šibenik: Legacy of the Master Mason
It would have been just another charming little Dalmatian town, with typical houses of white Istrian stone (much appreciated in Venice), if it was not for one man; a man that left a lasting legacy here and elsewhere in Dalmatia, namely Juraj Dalmatinac (George of Dalmatia).
Whether in the elegantly compact Large Papalić Palace in Split or in the altar of the graceful Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik, George of Dalmatia left an unmistakable imprint as architect and sculptor wherever he went. His masterpiece, however, remains to be the UNESCO World Heritage Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik.

From the outside, there is nothing grandiose about the Cathedral. On the inside, a trained eye would never miss the fusion of styles between Gothic and Renaissance. It was George of Dalmatia who introduced the first brushstrokes of Renaissance art into the Dalmatian milieu as he took over the construction of the Cathedral from his precursor, Bonino de Milano, in 1441. In addition to the splendid baptistery and vestry, George of Dalmatia used a genius method of interlocking large stone slabs (known as montage construction) in order to build self-supporting structures without mortar. Actually, this is probably the world’s largest cathedral built of stone without the incorporation of wood or bricks!

Once outside the Cathedral, one can admire the frieze with 71 faces sculpted on one of the walls by George of Dalmatia, as well as the Lion Gate (northern portal) by Bonino de Milano. Leaving the Cathedral behind, we wandered the alleys and climbed the staircases of the city, admiring its air of quietness and its relaxed rhythm, best experienced when the hordes of day trippers finally leave.

3. Krka National Park: Swimming by the Waterfalls
Many national parks around the world offer the visitor the chance to contemplate and appreciate nature. Nevertheless, not all of them allow you to ‘engage’ with nature. At the National Park of Krka, some 18 Km from Šibenik, one can enjoy Mother Nature at her best: waterfalls, lakes, wetlands, and more.

A 2 km trail leads the visitor from one wonder to the next, offering an extraordinary chance to explore the wealth of flora and fauna of the National Park: otters, roe deer, badgers, eagles, salamanders, they are all here, but frogs are easier to spot as they give themselves away. Cultural phenomena are not lacking, as one can visit and learn about the Krka Hydropower Plant and the XIX century watermills.

Then comes a natural phenomenon to which the Park owes its uniqueness: the travertine. Travertines are deposits made of limestone (calcium carbonate) which precipitates out of running water. The calcium carbonate molecules become encrusted in algae and moss, forming travertine in different forms. In the case of Krka, travertine grew too big and all across the river like natural barriers, thus interrupting the flow of water and creating several waterfalls and cascades.

Of all the waterfalls in Krka, Skradinski Buk is the biggest and most impressive. As visitors queuing on the nearby bridge go camera crazy, a visit to Krka is never complete without venturing into the cold, clear water by these high waterfalls. Just to give you an idea: an average of 55 cubic meters a second flow down Skradinski Buk annually. It is the largest travertine cascade system in Europe.

Tales from Zagreb:
On a sunny day, a brave governor exhausted and thirsty from battle, asked a girl caled Manda to ladle (zagrabiti) him out some water from the spring. The spring became Manduševak and the city, Zagreb. Today, the spring can still be visited at the Square of Ban Josip Jelačić at the heart of Zagreb. While this is almost certainly a legend, other tales from Zagreb are not.

As I contemplate the cityscape from the Lotrščak Tower, I remember another tale, this time a real one. It was in the XIII century that Béla IV, the King of Hungary, escaped to Zagreb. The Tatars had ravaged his homeland, and the people of Zagreb offered him refuge. In gratitude, he proclaimed Gradec (one of the two city hills) as a free state. Zagreb still commemorates this by the blasting of the canon at noon from this very same Tower.

One only needs to pay attention to the amount of equestrian statues and larger-than-life statues of national heroes and symbols to understand the extent to which Zagreb relates to the past, a vivid past that can still be contemplated in the city’s Renaissance Walls around the Cathedral, its medieval Stone Gate where locals still venerate the Virgin of Kamenita Vrata, and buildings in the XIX century neo-styles around Zagreb’s main squares and parks.

Most tourists tend to hang around the main squares, go to the restaurants and bars of Tkalčićeva Street to savor a štrukli, or head straight to the St. Mark Square in Gradec to admire the St. Mark’s Church and its colorful tiled roof, among other attractions. A stone’s throw from here is Atelier Meštrović, housing a generous collection of works by the great sculpture, Ivan Meštrović.

Walking up and down the city, one eventually comes to realize something that should come as no surprise: there is nothing extraordinarily unique about Zagreb. Still, its ability to balances so many different influences and styles in almost perfect harmony is unique: some parks are reminiscent of Vienna, a couple of squares could easily fit into Kiev’s urban fabric, tens of buildings betray an Austro-Hungarian legacy…eventually you happily surrender to this mosaic, and you rejoice in the daily beat of Zagreb as you enter the Dolac Market, which they call the Belly of Zagreb: a feast for the senses, and a perfect end to a pleasant stay at a city that is at once both East and West (literally, since it was on the Orient Express route, and is geographically part of the Western Balkans).

Art and Sexuality: Vagina Activism

It’s another controversy about Contemporary Art, and I wonder what my students would think: visitors to the Musée d’Orsay in the French capital came across an unexpected performance (if you would call it so) when a young woman suddenly sat down with her back to a famous painting, opened her legs and posed with her hands stretching her vagina open for the viewers.

This time it’s not Femen, not Marina Abramovic, but rather an average artist from Luxemburg called Deborah de Robertis, whose intervention last week sparked a heated debate that we all know too well: where are the limits? The borderline?

The ‘act’ took place at the hall where Gustave Courbet’s painting ‘The Origin of the World’ hangs on the wall, a painting that portrays a woman’s thighs, torso, and, at the centre of attention, her unshaven genitals. The Orsay website celebrate this masterpiece of Modern Art, and on its website they had this to say about it: “Courbet regularly painted female nudes, sometimes in a frankly libertine vein. But in The Origin of the World he went to lengths of daring and frankness which gave his painting its peculiar fascination. The almost anatomical description of female sex organs is not attenuated by any historical or literary device.”

But what was Deborah thinking when she recreated -in a way- the original painting through her performance? Well, here is what she had to say:
“There is a gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze. In his realist painting, the painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.”

Obviously, the Museum does not share this ‘vaginal interpretation’. She was accused of exhibitionism and of violating the Museum’s rules. Many high profile critics rushed to condemn her act as pure propaganda, aimed at securing an ephemeral media attention, while others pushed for a feminist interpretation, overkill!

I do not know if what she did was art, I am not arrogant enough to claim I have the magical equation or definition for what art is. I also couldn’t care less about the limits. I do know, however, that if she really means what she says, we would be witnessing a case of ‘vagina activism’ in which genitals are –finally- at the service of art (rather than being a clichéd expression of a zillionth feminist outcry).

The Origin of the World by Gustave CourbetDeborah de Robertis in action

Mediterranean Art Presentation (10 June 2014) – Teaser

Next week, I will be giving a presentation on Mediterranean Art at my university, the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya (UIC). The presentation is centered on seven tales and seven masterpieces from Prehistory, Ancient Civilizations and Classical Antiquity, namely:

1. Michelangelo of the Cave (Magdalenian Culture, France & Spain)
Cave Paintings of Lascaux & Altamira

2. The Stone Idol (Saflieni Phase, Malta)
The Sleeping Lady of Malta

3. Beyond the Minotaur’s Labyrinth (Minoan, Greece)
The Bull-Leaping Frieze

4. Tragedy of the Horse-Tamers (Mycenaean, Greece)
The Mask of Agamemnon

5. Mystery of the Heretic King (Pharaonic, Egypt)
The Bust of Nefertiti

6. The Seafaring Purple Traders (Phoenician, Lebanon)
Ivory Panel with Lioness devouring African Boy

7. Till Death Do Us Apart (Etruscan, Italy)
Sarcophagus of the Spouses

Below are some questions to help you ‘warm up’ for the presentation:

– Which European cave is known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory? Why?
 – How did a queen & 80 women lay the foundation for Carthage?
 – Who were the Purple Traders that sailed the Mediterranean & founded Cádiz?
 – Who was Ancient Egypt’s Heretic King?
 – What Med. culture erected the world’s oldest freestanding stone structures?
 – Who were the Mediterranean Vikings?
 – Who were the Etruscans? Where did they originally come from?
 – Who were the Hippodamoi that were conquered by a horse?
 – How did the Trojan War start with Paris?
 – When and why did the Classical Antiquity come to an end?


Excerpts from my Mediterranean Art Presentation

Last Friday I gave a lecture at the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) in Barcelona titled “The Mediterranean Art: An Expression of the Mediterranean Spirit”, attended by over 40 staff from some 20 countries and international organizations. Some of my colleagues asked me to post the final message from the lecture, so here it is:

“In our sea, everything changes direction with the passage of time: migration routes, flow of knowledge, political models, cults, tastes…maybe even the currents of the Mediterranean. Our reality is as liquid as our sea.

You must have heard of the Butterfly Effect: that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly at one part of the planet can provoke a hurricane at some other part, because everything is somehow related and interdependent. If you believe that this concept is modern, then think again: migrations from Anatolia yielded a civilization in Crete (the Minoan Civilization), while a runaway Phoenician Queen (Dido) laid the foundation of an empire in Tunisia (Carthage) that vied for the control of the Mediterranean. Turn your eyes to the Iberian Art of Spain and you’ll see it is nothing but a fusion of Phoenician and Greek arts, inasmuch as Phoenician art, in turn, was a fusion of Assyrian and Egyptian arts. Temples of the Egyptian Goddess, Isis, still stand in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, while some of the Roman Empire’s most magnificent monuments can be admired in Libya, Syria and Lebanon. Where does the West end and the East begin? What is the meaning of North and South?

To put it shortly, I will share a quote by Alexander the Great, even though most probably it was his master’s, Aristotle: ‘On the conduct of each depends the fate of all.’

More than any other time, and away from delivering any discourse, this quote should guide our moral compass towards a revised geography. A moral geography if you may; one that would break away with clichéd and imagined communities, one that would transcend cultural Darwinism, one that would not be washed away by the waves of our great sea.”