BERKELEY, Cal.—On the tippy-top of my list of my favorite museums in the world, the Lowie Museum of Anthropology at UC/Berkeley is always bobbling Number One and Two with the Cooper-Hewitt in New York. Two blows from the Lowie: a dazzling gloss on "House of Miracles: Votive Sculptures from Northeastern Brazil” (through May 13) at the Lowie proper, and a Lowie-derived show across the street at the University Art Museum called "From Palace and Province: Ancient Egyptian Art” (through May 6).
The Egyptian show is the lesser, but nonetheless suggestive. Beguiling indeed is the photo of Phoebe Hearst astride a horse in front of the Cheops pyramid. That enlightened patron of California’s cultural life gave Cal’s Dr. George Reisner a substantial grant to finance his digs along the Nile, a few fruits of which are on display here.
The Lowie likes to tout itself as the largest anthropology museum west of Chicago, and it was inventive, persistent diggers like Reisner in the 1890s that gave the then-fledgling U its first purchase on a world-class reputation.
Guest curator Cathleen Keller, assistant professor in UC/B’s Department of Near Eastern studies, has wisely limited her survey to a crucial 500-year period covering the Old Kingdom (2775-2134 B.C.) and the First Intermediate Period (c. 2134 and 2040 B.C.)—i.e., from the centralizing Age of the pyramids to an interregnum during which power was widely diffused across the river nation.
Memphis, just southwest of modern Cairo, was the capital of the Old Kingdom, and its power was symbolized by the huge pyramids and their adjacent mausoleums.
During the Intermediate period, the pharaohs lost their hegemony, and the local rulers were buried in their home provinces—one of the most important cemeteries being Naga ed-Deir, on the outskirts of the newly powerful city of Abydos in Middle Egypt, from which most of the First Intermediate Period material is derived.
To quote Professor Keller, “If the Giza monuments, in their uniformity and balance, reflect the patronage and values of the unified Old Kingdom, the diverse objects recovered from Naga ed-Deir mirror the First Intermediate Period’s social mobility and lack of concentrated power and wealth.”
This interregnum ended under the unifying leadership of Nebhepetre Mentuhoptep II, founder of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom (c. 2040-1640 B.C.). The first art produced for him reflects the provincial styles that dominated the period of political disintegration, but later work re-established contact with the “palace” art of Memphis. It’s a “small” (five and a half centuries!) slice of ancient Egyptian culture, but all the more illuminating for its focus.
The synoptic view of the entire sweep of Egyptian art organized last year by the Institute of the Arab World in Paris was a perfect complement. There’s much more to that culture’s art than the Pharaohs and their workers ever dreamt of—Greek, Roman, Coptic, modern. But it’s nutritious to study one chip of the grand mosaic under Keller’s microscope.
The Brazilian show at the Lowie was of more than unusual interest to me, since I viewed it a week before I flew to Brazil for the first time, having been doing an English major’s prep for the past six months, including a rather unsuccessful tape tutoring in Portuguese!
Ex-votos are a minor art form with major religious significance that the Portuguese brought to Brazil in their knapsack of traditions. “Hand-carved wooden figures and simple ceramic sculptures are left for saints by the Catholic faithful in many Latin American and European countries in gratitude for healing.”
Over 100 such artifacts from Northeastern Brazil are the heart of the Lowie exhibition. But there are translations of the faithful’s audio testimonials and much graphic ephemera that give a richness to the phenomenon (not excluding Lourdes-like abandoned crutches).
Since I’m going to Brazil to see the architecture of Jose Zanine Caldos, I can’t resist supplementing the show’s commentary with a little gloss of my own. Zanine’s father was a dirt-poor boy from Bahia who worked his way through medical textbooks for the rich boys who were playing too hard to study.
Zanine’s father took up his medical practice in a poor district of Sao Paolo where, to this day, Zanine told me proudly, pregnant women go to his grave two decades after his death to light candles and bring flowers—for good gynecological luck.
Zanine’s father is clearly one of the non-canonical saints whom the peasant faithful canonized on their own hook without the advice and consent of the Curia. This practice evidently contains Amerind and African elements, as well as standard Portuguese ones.
And while the votive sculptures aren’t uniformly great aesthetically, occasionally one (like the broken-neck thank-you note) soars into the Empyrean. There’s a lovely catalog produced by the Americas Society / Art Gallery, 680 Park Avenue, New York 10021. The show moves on to L.A., at Loyola Marymount University (June 13-Aug. 26), if you can’t get a move on fast enough to catch it in Berkeley.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, April 25, 1990