Sophie Heath ’18
Curatorial and Collections Assistant, Tang Teaching Museum
Fred Wilson often uses hidden or overlooked objects in his artwork to comment on dominant understandings of history and culture. His installations and sculpture address issues that can arise by placing cultural objects on display. By combining the known and neglected histories of these objects, Wilson illuminates the limited lens through which Western museums often view history and art.
In Pharaoh Fetish, a black plaster pharaoh stands tall on a deep yellow base that adjusts the statue to be eye-level with the viewer. The yellow base is akin to a pedestal found in an ethnographic museum. There is a subtle subordination present. Perhaps the name itself implies this, a “fetish” being a passive noun, something to be desired or worshipped. The passive nature of the title alludes to the West’s continuing fetishization of Egypt. A typical tourist souvenir, the truncated pharaoh is emblematic of Egypt’s growing popularity since the late eighteenth century. After Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, Egyptian goods became “fetishes” for European and American collectors. However, broader understandings of Egyptian culture were largely ignored as these ancient goods began to represent Western exploration and discovery. Several leather necklaces hanging on the pharaoh depict a profile of the queen Nefertiti against a silhouette of Africa. Nefertiti, whose body remains lost, is seen as a symbol of the West’s prowess with discovery after Westerners tasked themselves with “rescuing” her remains. The “Western hero” narrative overshadows Nefertiti’s significance as a powerful Egyptian queen and the mother of one of the most famous pharaohs in history—Tutankhamen.
Other symbols adorning the pharaoh’s body include the ankh, a symbol of life and power in Egypt, and beads in Pan-African colors strung onto leather cords. While the ankh represents Egyptian power, the beads allude to the necklaces worn by Black Power activists in the United States in the 1970s. By combining the ankh with the beaded necklaces, Wilson reminds viewers of synergistic moments in African and diasporic history: the precolonial African continent and the civil rights era when, after centuries of slavery and hardship, black and brown peoples in late twentieth-century United States fought for equality.
Prompted by Wilson’s work, we are reminded of these histories and encouraged to ask further questions. For many years, the ankh and pharaoh have represented Western wealth and exploration. Is historical Egyptian symbolism now lost from these objects? Are the ankh, Nefertiti, and pharaoh “Egyptian” symbols to Egyptians? Wilson does not present decisive answers but asks us to consider the varied meanings of objects and their display, as well as our possible desensitization to their original cultural meanings. Pharaoh Fetish asks us to reevaluate our existing knowledge of history and museums and critique the hidden lenses that refract our view of the world around us.